Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Slow and Easy

I’ve been thinking about the slow food movement and wishing that we could extend its main precepts to other realms of human activity. It’s a cliché that older people find the world moving too fast for them. I am certainly aware of the many reasons for that sensation. Interestingly, however, it appears that the world is moving too fast for everyone, at present.

Some examples:

• The effect of the 24/7 news cycle on the news media;
• The effect of the internet on the well-being of newspapers;
• The effect of the 24/7, digitally enhanced, world financial market on almost every nation’s financial well-being;
• The way an accelerated speed of communication allowed hasty judgments to multiply in a geometric progression as investment bankers and hedge fund operators raced to keep up with the creation of new money-making instruments;
• The way the accelerated speed of communication allows for hysterical responses to each new piece of economic or political news;

The seduction of the “breaking news report” in general, and “news” in one’s specific area of expertise on a smaller scale, distracts both the writer and reader. We are hard-wired as a species, in fact, to prefer breaking news. It gave us an edge on survival. The saber-toothed tiger is eating people, village by village. Run!

What is being lost is the opportunity for reflection, not just by the purveyors of information, but by its consumers, and all of us suffer as a result. The writers of the news stumble over themselves trying to keep their breaking stories updated. There’s no time for fact-checking or digging a bit deeper. There’s no lag time between the arrival of information onto the writer’s desk and its launch into the public arena, where the public panics and inundates Congress with email.

One really good example involves the AIG bonus debacle. It ought not to have become public knowledge within minutes of the moment the Obama Administration heard about it. Instead of hysterical headlines, leading to panicky and angry action by Congress, there ought to have been judicious jaw-boning on the part of the Obama administration, resulting in the voluntary refusal of the controversial bonuses by their recipients.

Even a few years ago the scenario for this mess would have gone down like this: Treasury Secretary Geithner would have been informed by staff of a rumor that AIG was about to hand out huge bonuses to the bozos that created the risky instruments that caused the world-wide financial melt-down. He and the President and other economic advisers would have had a few hours before the news hit the first newspaper editions during which time they could explain to AIG that this would be a disaster of monumental proportions and must not happen (jaw-boning). And it would not have happened. Honestly, this has been the way a number of near-disasters have been averted in years gone by. It’s a technique of governance that we no longer have at our disposal in this 24-7 news hungry world.

And it’s not going to get better, I’m afraid. Newspapers, which are the originators of most in-depth news coverage, are down-sizing with dizzying speed, in size of the paper format, in complexity and amount of material covered, in accuracy of the speeded up coverage, and most importantly (since this affects the quality of coverage) in size of staff.

You have to look carefully to ascertain the degree to which the diversity of print media is vanishing across the country, since the individual papers affected often carry only vaguely worded stories. Daily papers decrease to 3 days a week; some go out of print altogether; no major daily has the same staff they had 6 months ago. Floods of talented, experienced journalists—people who had perspective on what they were covering—are out of work, or working in fields where their valuable understanding can no longer be used for the public’s benefit. Instead, we have young reporters learning the ropes on internet editions. We have many, many blogs, some by people with a broad and deep knowledge of their subject area, some just with bloated opinions. We have lost the middle-man, the filter, who could help us see the larger picture.

What we are experiencing as a result is the rise of democracy in place of the representative system of government our forefathers created. They gave us representatives for a reason: reflection; distance from the whim of the masses. Now the passions and fears of the masses have become the governors of us all and our representatives in Washington have become their prisoners instead of their leaders.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh dear - quite a depressing read Bdogs - I largely agree with you. My moan about the media, and in particular newspapers, as they seem to make such a big thing out of anything if they think it will sell papers, rather than if it is really newsworthy. I am afraid we are stuck with it all though and my answer is to rise above it all and lead life as I think it should be lead.

Bdogs said...

Your answer is the right one, Weaver. The pressure on papers to print what sells has never been greater. Ours sacked 30% of its editorial staff day before yesterday, most of them people 45 and over. My husband retired from that paper a year ago November as a columnist, and still writes one column a week (on subjects unrelated to news). So we feel really sad for all the disruption of lives.

Ralph W, said...

BDOGS: You have hit the nail on the head. I wish every person from junior high on would read your posting. The decline in reading in this country is the biggest threat we face as a nation. A lot of people have even quit watching the national news on the "Big Three" networks because it is not sensational enough or not "one sidded" in support of what they want to hear.

salsez said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

So right. For me this phenomenon is the increasing rise of mediocrity. The less people reflect and the more they merely react, the lower the standard of thought becomes. I can see it happening to myself over time.