News and the forgotten value of waiting

by PAUL WOODWARD

If someone wanted to create a parody of cable news, it would be hard to satirize the form more effectively than to cast Wolf Blitzer as the lead character in a goofy show called The Situation Room, where all news all the time is breaking news.

The irony of the fact that CNN’s news show of that name is, on the contrary, meant to be taken seriously, is that it does indeed capture the zeitgeist of the news media environment in which we now live — an environment, driven largely by social media, that maximizes the value of the nowness of news while eviscerating the value of its content.

News nowadays has such a short shelf-life, it’s already stale before it gets packaged.

The obvious explanation for this state of affairs is that while journalism is and always has been a mad race to get there first, the driving forces behind that race now operate outside the control of traditional news organizations.

Yet that dynamic does not, it seems to me, fully account for what’s going on.

The over amplified urgency of news, mirrors a much broader social malaise. People everywhere, but especially in America, have been conditioned to feel that there is no experience in life more intolerable than having to wait.

To wait is to be tortured by a cavity that urgently demands filling.

Waiting destabilizes the nervous system and seemingly the only way most people can prevent an imminent seizure or some other kind of systemic breakdown these days is by clutching the ubiquitous grounding device upon which everyone now depends: their smart phone — a grounding device that helps each user feel connected by disconnecting them from where they are.

In response to a pandemic of impatience, the news media, like Amazon Prime, caters to and cultivates a sense that waiting is one step away from dying and conversely that a life lived to the full is a life in which we never have to wait — for anything. We want everything now.

In truth, as we lose the capacity to wait, we regress to (or never grow out of) a state of infantilism. Our expectation that everything should be available on demand, far from shaping the perfect life, has instead become an unremitting source of stress.

We have become enslaved by our impatience — there is no liberty in this addiction.

Impatience is the incapacity to find ease in the present moment.

Rather than treating the present as a fertile space in which the unexpected can freely emerge, we demand that it conform to our expectations. We struggle to shape what will be while continuously turning away from what is.

In so doing, we are forever struggling to inhabit a world of our designs, while shielding ourselves from the world in which we live.

Since so much of what passes for news describes circumstances in which people have died, it is strange that questions about life and death somehow fall outside the purview of most journalists — as though cold facts are all that matter.

The shooting at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, yesterday afternoon illustrate how thinly sliced a story becomes when reduced to a short string of facts — the names of the gunman and his victims, statements from law enforcement, gleanings from social media, and then a robotic presidential response.

Jarrod Warren Ramos will have his day in court, while his random victims have been deprived of theirs. Maybe he’ll dispute the suggestion that his killing spree was random. Strangely, the local police, while emphasizing that their investigation would be slow and thorough, nevertheless went out of their way to dampen speculation that this might be a random attack on journalists incited by Donald Trump and the alt right — as though by describing Ramos’ attack as “targeted,” they had sealed off the crime scene from the media-hostile environment in which it took place.

There may come a day when the full story is told, yet the faster the spinning top of news coverage turns, the smaller the space in which patient storytelling can unfurl.

In our eagerness to consume the news as fast as it comes, like a snake eating itself, we consume our capacity to digest information, ruminate on its meaning and engage the world thoughtfully with reflective minds and open hearts.

*first published at Attention to the Unseen

More by Paul Woodward

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