The Promiscuity of the Media Has Made the News Boring

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Edmund Wilson was thinking about sex. He often did. But in the nineteen sixties, toward the end of his life, his inexhaustible libido was getting exhausted. He confided to his notebook that he was astonished at all the time, intensity, effort, and emotional turmoil he had poured into the business of pursuing and bedding women. For most of his life, Wilson had been a sexually frisky, not to say omnivorous lover. This seemed improbable for a man shaped like a beachball, given to drinking whole fifths of scotch, and capable of astonishing feats of free-lance erudition that made him, as people said, the last great American man of letters. Now he wondered what it all meant.

He wondered what the sex meant, anyway. Frantic, pointless activity. The rest of us sometimes feel that way about the news. We have indulged too long in promiscuities of information. They have made us tired. Dr. Seuss once wrote something called "The Sleep Book." It starts: "The news just came in from the Castle of Keck/ that a very small bug by the name of Van Vleck/ is snoring so loud you can look down his neck./ This may not seem very important, I know,/ but it is, so I'm bothering telling you so." There ensued pages and pages of nonsense news about the weird doings of bugs and Seussian creatures. The object was to make a child fall fast asleep.

Too often the news just keeps us artificially awake, overstimulated. Information overload produces attention deficit disorder. Heraclitus said you cannot step into the same river twice — each instant, it becomes a different river. For some time, we have been living in the rapids. Just as Edmund Wilson's libido demanded a lifelong drill of undiscriminating erections (a sexual enactment of J. P. Morgan 's dictum: markets go up, markets go down), so the news demands an exhausting procession of moral arousals and judgments — outrage and sympathy, Diana and John, Bill and Monica. We are all Oprah now.

Bill Clinton, of course, was Niagara itself. He drenched the American people with an incredible flow of questions/dilemmas/soap operas about himself, his wife, his intern-geisha, his midnight pardons. The Music Man managed to turn even something as banal as the cost of his postpresidential office space into an outraged debate. The narcissist in the information age: "Enough about me. What do YOU think of me?"

George W. Bush has intuited this. He has deliberately turned the White House into the Castle of Keck. That's his game. Whether he turns out to be a good president or a bad president, or both, like his father (the answer will not be known for some time), he has instinctively withdrawn the presidency, by degrees, from the gush of the Oprah business. It's shrewd to have done so. He is working his agenda. He has almost no time. If he loses Senate in 2002, he's a dead duck.

That's enough about Bush. Let's talk about ME. With Bush, I am working on the twelfth president of my life. They come and go. I grew up in Washington D.C. Each new president brings a new cast of characters to town, a new atmosphere, a new presidential personality, a new way of looking at the world. How different Truman was from Roosevelt. Both my parents were journalists, and, believe it or not, I picked up the Roosevelt-Truman difference, even when I was five. How different Eisenhower was from Truman. When Ike left in 1961, he seemed a gray old man and there was JFK, young and bright and handsome and — as it seemed that first spring, after the Bay of Pigs — dangerously inexperienced. Lyndon Johnson, flying home from Dallas, transformed Washington overnight... Nixon after Johnson... Ford after Nixon, Carter after Ford, Reagan after Carter, and so on, to Bush II.

Is the news more interesting now than it used to be? Or less? The inundation of "news" delivered round the clock by the cable channels has a repetitious, downmarket quality, and leaves an impression of stupidity, of history gone to the shallows. When I was young, there was always war or the threat of war — world war, Cold War, Korea, Vietnam. It may have been just as stupid, but it was real history, anyway. It had size. Today we have occasional school shootings (which we cover as if they were the Normandy invasion), or Robert Downey Jr. getting arrested for drugs again, or news that the president of New York's New School may have killed innocent civilians 32 years ago, when he was a Navy Seal.

It's wonderful not to have the wars, of course. Let's not give it the evil eye. But the news industry, with all its empowering technology and air time, and its disempowering budget cuts, falls to obsessing on nonentities (like Puffy and JLo) and stray targets of opportunity, in the way that Edmund Wilson hit on almost any woman who crossed his path, including, I believe, the poor woman in upstate New York who was kind enough to give him Hungarian lessons.