Introducing “bad News Bores”

Richard Laermer asked:

I noticed it first at a Kwanzaa party late last year. Having trouble keeping myself amused, I started quizzing those holding drinks and discovered that everyone there was kind of “into” news and recent events.

For a second, I brightened. As a media junkie hanging out in a room of strangers, I realized it would be my lucky night if they all turned out to be informed and alive.

It wasn’t to be.

Everyone was joking about who’d called whom, in the middle of what night, to break the news of whichever bit of current events. It was as if, I realized, it was a big contest for this crowd, a competition to be the first to tell people about each big happening in our hypey news times.

“Remember, I was nervous to call you at three in the morning about Saddam because you love your sleep so much,” reminisced one woman. She was followed by some giddy man confessing how after a recent airline crash he didn’t hesitate from calling a friend, regardless of the hour, because he wanted to get to that friend “before anyone else. Yeah, that was big!”

Welcome to news observation as a sport. It’s based on the recent discovery of how often and how fast we can celebrate (typically bad) news with each other, and we all want to win as often as possible.

This is a result, I am guessing, from 9/11. On that day, for the first time in a while, news became way too important to do without. It was suddenly an era when it made you feel better to pass on a Tom Friedman column or something profound or uncanny that the late Tim Russert or on time Jon Stewart had proffered in the heat of the day. Those were sad and perplexing days, and sharing was de rigueur.

I wonder if this is partially because we of the complacent generations have longed for our own Kennedy moment, a story with which to regale future citizens — and each other. Finally, on that crisp fall morning, we got our own “Where were you when?” game to match the one our parents play with sadness, nostalgia, and some element of glee.

But now it’s more than seven years later so why are we still calling each other oh-my-God-guess what in the middle of the night? Is it because we need to share life-affirming information with one another in the insecurity of Late Bush America? Has our Government’s never-ending habit of attacking nations made us this way? Is it due to our own small effort to increase vigilance when the threat index changes hue?

Or we’re bored.

It makes sense to go whole-hog over hugely significant news, attacks and the like. But why these phone call celebrations for items that are not going to change the world? Why call about Scott Peterson’s court appearance? About Michael Jackson’s new arrest (and gosh, why call about OJ now?)? About the latest missing-kid trial? Is it perhaps that this is all we have to talk about, some communal “thing” that occurred a few seconds ago? Suddenly we’ve all become Dateline producers, organizing life around the “get” of the day.

In an eerily familiar way, this is the return of the late-nineties stock ticker. Constantly clicking on stock news was (when we had stock, wow) quite the thing to do in those boom years, and then we all got into trouble with that. But in those days, one did not share the ticker news, as we do now, we merely yelped and ran from the room. It was fun — and unlike the constant news clicking, it wasn’t a drain on your time for no real gain. Back in market heyday you could jump on your slow Web, get your price, know if your portfolio was up or down, go back to work or whatever. Now we spend time surfing sites, clicking lazily onto channels, calling friends. I don’t understand jumping up and down for a tragedy like we did for the Netscape stock split. This new habit seems like a very different kind of nervous-making, one we might reconsider being so giddy about.

A group of foreigners dies in a crash off a coast no one is sure where. That has to be shared hastily…? I vote for a moment of silence. Just a wee bit of pensiveness.

And how often do we really know what we’re talking about before we make that call? So much of what we learn from the online news sites is really only the very latest news bites. How do you know when to jump from the link or stop watching Hannity before you email or call around? And if you’re trying to get to your friends first, are you even sure you’re right about it? Now we’re all becoming news editors, each our own Jason Robards from All the President’s Men. Are we sure about this? Are there multiple sources confirming? Then go to press.

Let’s imagine we merely “took” the news like our grandparents did. Mine had a habit of sitting down with it and a cup of tea at 10 p.m.; when they knew where their children were they got their information and went to bed satisfied. No sharing with others. In the morning they read a newspaper and learned what they might learn more about in detail. Sure there was water-cooler talk during breaks, but it was talk about family and friends — and the important controversy of the day. People didn’t, however, feel the need to share a deadly crash/Stalin sighting/cure for polio the second after it jumped onto the screen.

Maybe our lives were more interesting in Grandma’s day. Or there was more to gain from keeping it inside. Better yet, maybe there more faith in the evolutionary nature of the news. Here is the formula: A story breaks (“‘Mad Cow’ Cow Found”), there are denials of it mattering (“‘Mad Cow’ Cow Is Canadian”), people react really strangely (“Secretary of Agriculture Says ‘Mad Cow’ Won’t Stop Her from Being Carnivorous”), and then we discover it’s only one beast (“Lone Cow Theory Holds Up”). Eventually, the story plays out calmly (“No More ‘Mad Cows,’ Only Vengeful Ones”) and we return to sharing liquids and baby pics with our colleagues and ultimately bored enemies.

The truth, it turns out, is less exciting than we thought, but that didn’t stop us from a half-dozen over-excited phone calls along the way.

Back to that Kwanzaa festival. Everyone seemed psyched that they knew something first and had gotten to each other before other acquaintances hopped on the facts. I kept wondering what the big deal was, why they were so thrilled to be smacking people with bad news. Then it occurred to me that in times like these, where we can no longer talk about our acquisitions because it seems kind of dull to do so, when so many are hardly employed in the manner in which we’d like to be accustomed, it’s hard to find and/or share things that we’re overjoyed about.

I realized then that the news brings us joy. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, good, or just strange. (You can bet there were calls about the woman who found a condom in her soup and got a settlement from those fast-food schmucks.) All that matters is that it’s shareable. Bottom line is that when something unique happens on the horizon, people go berserk. It’s quite simple: news-knowledge makes us look good!

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