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We have an immediacy problem

John Young
Special to the Daily

Those of us who walked this planet 45 years ago this week remember exactly what we were doing that day when man first landed on the moon.

I was in the back seat of the family station wagon in my pin-striped jersey and navy-blue ball cap, headed to an American Legion baseball game.

I heard the breathless details, “The Eagle has landed,” on the car radio. I was in front of the TV later when Neal Armstrong made history’s most significant foot print.

It was 1969. Like rafting through an asteroid belt, we were about to exit America’s most tumultuous and tortuous decade. That night, however, the nation’s heart beat as one. Was it the last time?

It’s said that television came of age with John Kennedy’s assassination. By the time NASA acted out Kennedy’s “to the moon” boast, TV had blazed trails of intimacy and immediacy unimaginable six years prior.

And today — I think back to the increasing immediacy delivered to our eyes, and wonder at the cost.

We just passed another anniversary — 20 years since the slow-speed police pursuit of O.J. Simpson down an L.A. freeway.

Via cable news and network cut-ins, we had arrived at a new and dangerous state of knowing: We knew everything and nothing. Fixated, we knew the instant O.J. dismounted his Bronco. At the same time, we wouldn’t know it if a neighbor’s house was afire down the block. And we certainly wouldn’t know the neighbor.

Such immediacy was still novel then. Now it is our addiction, our crack cocaine.

An airliner down in the Indian Ocean without explanation? We must have one. And if we can’t have one, we will listen to experts explain that they don’t have one, either.

If CNN’s heyday was the immediacy delivered when Syrian scuds fell on Israel during American troops’ liberation of Kuwait in 1991, its nonstop speculation about the (still) missing Malaysian Flight 370 last March was emblematic of a junkie who just can’t stop.

Based on the CNN info loop, that jet was the biggest story of the year. Oh, sure; and at the same time the most significant domestic policy shift since Medicare was unfolding: the individual and employer mandates of the Affordable Care Act.

Immediacy. Immediacy. Now that we have the info-structure in place, there’s no place on the globe where a “breaking” story can’t distract us.

And while this addiction is endemic to cable news, understand that local TV news is similarly addled by its devotion to whatever is “breaking” — the hit and run, the shooting, the missing (Caucasian) child, the gripping murder trial.

It beats having to analyze something, anything, that actually affects our lives — be it education, transportation, the nation’s scandalous distribution of wealth — whatever.

Newspapers do a better job with this, but have their own immediacy addiction. For instance, when it comes to education, too often the consumers of information are scandalously shorted. A 2009 Brookings Institute study of how newspapers covered education found “how little education coverage relates to education itself” — the focus too often being on “breaking” incidents: a brawl here, a weapon there, a teacher bedding a student. Have you got a mug shot?

Ah, but the “analysis” burden is met when those state test scores are released. Yes? Actually, that’s just another “breaking” moment, and a chance to break out graphs and charts depicting patently false comparisons — “good schools,” “bad schools.”

None of this gives us a better understanding of a community quest.

That moon landing was a community quest we all understood. And for one amazing moment, before immediacy became a national addiction and distraction, we were all on board.

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


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