August 2, 2009
In Malaysia all local newspapers are state-controlled, so most of my news reading for the last six years was done online. It wasn’t until I visited my mother on the East Coast last month that I rediscovered the simple joy of poring over a paper with a cup of coffee each morning, and at first it took little effort to keep up. But it wasn’t long before I felt the pull of books that had collected dust on the shelf in my absence, books by H.L Mencken, Gary Wills, William Vollmann, Jane Jacobs, Wole Soyinka, Abdullah Hussein, Malcolm X, Jaques Barzun, Nadine Gordimer, Richard Scarry and Albert Einstein, to name a few, and not long after that that I started finding week-, two-week-old newspapers buried and unread beneath these timeless tomes.
The impulse at that point of course, news being news, was to throw the papers away…but on closer inspection I’ve found that that old paper often has more to say about the news than today’s edition.
The first thing one discovers in reading yesterday’s news is that most news doesn’t matter. Knowing that the derailed train killed 27 is, in hindsight, did nothing but temporarily quench our thirst to know. Most conditional headlines –a would or a could, as in FED COULD RAISE INTEREST RATES A HALF PERCENTAGE POINT – never came to pass or if they did, weren’t as painful as advertised, and so hardly worth worrying about in the first place. The op-ed doesn’t look so perspicacious anymore, while the economic crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play out like soap operas, high on drama but advancing nearly nowhere. (One day the news is a cease-fire, the next it’s all-out war, or one day it’s hints of a global rebound, the next that Wall Street joins the downturn.)
Reading yesterday’s news we will come to question the astuteness of those we’ve entrusted to deliver the news, something we are not inclined to do as they drag us around the next corner and the next, feeding our insatiable thirst for newness. Through the blur of perpetual motion we are made to forget that it was the media that brought us the Y2K scare (and careful never to remind us of their blunder starting on January 1, 2000); that it was the media that hyped the health of the US housing market before the bubble burst; that it was the media that joined President Bush in overselling Iraq’s weapons threat; that it was the media that made President Obama’s comment that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” matter more than the health care speech he delivered the same night. Glancing back, we are vitally reminded.
Reading an old paper, we see how we are made to care, and then to forget. The same pages that late last year were filled with reports of unrest in the Congo were nearly bereft of coverage this past June, when 100,000 Congolese were forced to flee their homes. * We will wonder why they routinely abandon such pressing issues, when the glare of their spotlight could attract the attention that might force change; and we will fairly conclude that it is not a strong conscience but opportunistic impulses that drive the media machine.
Of course every minute reading yesterday’s paper in lieu of today’s increases the risk that we will be out of touch with what is happening NOW. But then it’s worth asking ourselves why we want to know what’s happening NOW, and mainly it’s that we yearn to KNOW. In fact, though, most information truly worth knowing (leaving aside reliable reports that the sky is falling) will be valuable tomorrow. It can wait for us. And of course glancing back improves our powers of perception and in that way serves our interest to KNOW.
Not least of all, reading yesterday’s news allows us to get up close and personal with the nature of news. To see that news is a construct, built on hype, omission, conformity, whim and agenda; and short of cutting the media out of our lives, that awareness is among the best defenses available to us in our search for information that matters.
* A few days after this entry was penned Hillary Clinton visited the Congo and expressed concern for the rape epidemic there, and, for a brief moment, the media, from Yahoo! to the Washington Post, echoed that concern.