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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2002 /8 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Dave Shiflett

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Consumer Reports

News-Flow Mania: The writer gets sucked in by the Internet -- A recent survey shows that employees visit Internet news sites during business hours more than porn sites, shopping sites, and online gambling Meccas. This is said to be a bad thing. Indeed, the survey called the sites "time burners."

That is a wretched slander. Employees who are reading the news as it unfolds are surely up to something more useful than loitering around the water cooler, dissing the boss and analyzing his mistress's recent bun-tuck.

But two things are not in doubt. One is that these sites are addictive. The other is that they have dramatically changed what is broadly called journalism, especially the opinion-writing branch.

I speak from experience. Several years ago I made a conscious effort to go rustic for motives of the utmost purity: To escape the media-driven droning of Washington. I had watched political obsession destroy the best minds of my generation. Many awaited the pre-dawn plop of the Post on their doorstep with the same yearning an adolescent boy takes to that fabled peephole into the girls' shower.

Yet as the sheep graze nearby, I find myself fully in the grips of News-Flow Mania. This is a debilitating condition. Where there was once hope of thinking the long thoughts of middle age, reading the great books of antiquity, and of escaping the tyranny of the morning headlines, there is now a rechecking of events on the hour, sometimes more often than that. The stories are almost always of no real importance: Gunmen invade Sikh Temple in India! Mother beats child in Indiana parking lot! Pig rescued from swollen creek in Texas! It's raining like hell in Dresden!

What explains this addiction? Perhaps it is a belief that the more you know the better off you are, no matter how puny the knowledge. It is also true that when you're scrolling a news site you're not working, and slacking is also its own reward.

Looking on the bright side, this has been good for many writers, and perhaps especially for those in the opinion-mongering business. The Internet is awash not only in instant news, but instant commentary as well. And these days, anybody can be a commentator, and it sometimes seems most people are.

This is a stark departure from the way things used to be. When I got into the newspaper business in the late 1970s, it was understood that opinion writers would contemplate a subject long and hard before unleashing their learned thoughts. Rushing to print was very poor form, suggesting a hysterical cast of mind.

It was also understood that the opinion writers were supposed to be wizened old hacks who had paid their dues as reporters before ascending what was then known as the "ivory tower." Many of us started as copyboys, running dispatches from the wire machines to various editors. From there we moved to a weekly or semi-weekly, where a kid reporter covered town councils, county commissions, and whatever was happening down at the cop house.

Cop-house reporting included copying the names, addresses, and offenses of the recently arrested. For many reporters the names meant nothing: We often didn't stay in a town long enough to know many people, save for various municipal officials. But a helpful clerk might point out that Mr. Schmo, who blew a .22 on his breathalyzer examination, is the high-school vice principal, while Mrs. Kelly, who was bagged last Saturday night for disturbing the peace (with the help of a skillet), has a close connection with Commissioner Ryland, who was seen skulking off into the night just before the cops arrived, bearing a skillet imprint on the side of his head. This was generally the best-read feature in the paper.

This grunt work was often boring, but it taught young reporters how things worked: Who was screwing around with who and where it got them, the importance of attending charity barbecues, how city and town budgets get put together, which legal notices are worth reading, why the mayor refused to cut the ribbon at a particular store's opening (the proprietor was suspected of poisoning the mayor's dog), and the countless other small dramas that make up life. Thus informed, a hack could base his opinions on some knowledge of the real world. Or so went the theory.

When I got fully into the opinion business (in Reagan-era Washington), many thunderbolt-tossers had little if any practical journalism experience. This was no doubt in part due to the highly ideological tenor of the times, and town. Writers tended to come from a politician's staff, think tank, or had cranked out a book or two. They were strangers to the daily deadline, the courthouse, and the cop house. They simply had ideas and the belief that constant repetition of these ideas would change the world around them.

Some wrote well. Lots didn't.

Now the opinion racket is greatly transformed. Writers don't worry so much about daily deadlines; they're thinking about hourly updates. Anyone who began a piece with "it is my considered opinion" would be e-mocked within an inch of their life. Many opinions have been considered for every bit of seven minutes, if that. This is especially true on some of the blogs, where a writer might post half a thought, go to the can, and come back to finish the job.

The blogs have also done away with another fixture of old-time journalism: the editor. I have known many editors through the years; many were menaces. Malevolence informed their every editorial decision. All had a highly developed talent for removing any hint of literary flair. Any line that might cause a reader to even consider cracking a smile would be pulled from the page and beaten with a hatchet. But from time to time an editor will keep a writer from embarrassing himself, and in this regard their absence is sometimes keenly felt. Many of sites have also done away with another standard feature of old-time journalism: the paycheck. That's an advance many of the old press barons would hold in the highest possible regard.

Despite all shortcomings, however, the news net has established itself as a powerful drug. Someone will no doubt come up with a way to help us hopeless dopes break the habit. Meantime, word has it that a she-wolf has eaten a baby in Tibet. Here in Virginia, we are outraged — while Gibbon, Virgil, and Kierkegaard rest unmolested on the shelf. dime.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Dave Shiflett