Caring About the News Again
This is a story about finding a tiny but indelible personal connection to an enormous global news story. It all began with an exhausted, almost hopeless sigh: "Oh God, here we go again."
"Hezbollah Rains 120 Rockets on Israel," The New York Times headline announced with an incongruous poetic note back on July 13.
It didn't take a Brookings egghead to tell us what was coming next -- Israel would bomb Lebanon; Hezbollah would attack back; the death toll would sickeningly rise; and the news media would carry on for hour after hour and day after day as if the fuse to the Apocalypse had finally been lit.
But this time, something interesting happened to me on my way to reading newspapers and watching TV through the latest Middle East crisis.
This time, I tuned it all out. At least for a while.
After sitting through one hour of full-blast TV coverage of Journalism's Longest-Running Narrative of Human Suffering with Biblical Overtones Starring Scary People, I silently pledged:
Come five-star generals and think-tank gurus and Tom Friedman; come correspondents cringing as katyusha rockets explode all around; come Special Reports! and double-truck spreads; my eyes and ears are closed.
It was an inexcusable move, of course. If your neighbor's house is burning down, you don't walk away because a.) the guy who told you is a loudmouth, or because b.) you have your issues with your neighbors, or even because c.) you despise a couple of people in that dysfunctional neighbor family.
My Middle East news fast lasted for five days, after which I caved.
It wasn't just my conscience that did it. After five days, I felt like a monk with an urge. Suddenly, I was really, really hungry for news.
But where would I find that point of personal connection a person needs with a big story like this? That inner place where, when you go there, you know you really care, and that energy gives you the oomph to stay up with the media overload, staying as informed as a global citizen should?
So I grabbed the stack of the Rochester, Minn. Post-Bulletin, my small local newspaper, that was by then growing unread in a corner of my office. I put the papers in order starting from the day the crisis began, and I began reading.
But wait! Where were the front-page stories on the Middle East crisis?
The Post-Bulletin had sworn off the Lebanon-Israel crisis, it seemed, just as resolutely as I had. During the first few days of the crisis, the paper devoted every inch of its front page display space to the local heat wave.
I picked up the phone and called my friend Jay Furst, the Post-Bulletin's editor. Now, Jay and I have a certain kind of relationship. We get together for coffee often to talk about Marcel Proust (his favorite author), while I darkly warn about the parlous state of journalism today.
Jay needles me, by pointing out such things as how pretentious it is to use words like "parlous." And I bug him along the lines of "How come the Post-Bulletin doesn't run more international news? There's so much important stuff going on in the world! Did you see Al Gore's movie?"
When I called him this time, I could hear Jay being patient with me once again, as I reminded him how the Post-Bulletin hadn't put the Lebanon-Israel story on Page One except for a few measly teasers.
"I answer my phone, I read every e-mail and I write a blog that gets lots of reader comments every day," he said coolly. "I haven't heard from a single reader who says they want to read more about Israel-Lebanon."
From reading the Times, I learned all about the military strategies, the complex religious backstory, and the geopolitics of the situation. Stunning graphics showed me the precise landing spot of every katyusha rocket that was fired into Israel, and of every bombing strike in Lebanon.
Yet nothing in the Times touched my soul.
I turned to The Christian Science Monitor, as I often do for foreign news.
A headline there caught my eye: "Hizbollah Winning Over Arab Street." I thought that interviews with some real Lebanese might give me the point of connection I was looking for, so I clicked through to read the story.
But instead of interviews on the street, I got a roster of statements from political analysts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Washington.
Finally, I fired up Google and typed in "Lebanon bloggers."
Here is where I finally made my connection, by meeting a woman named Eve. She is a blogger from Beirut who wrote with air-raid sirens wailing in the background.
"I want my silly life back," she blogged. "I want to wake up in the morning and mull over what dress to wear. I want to match the color of my makeup and the color of my skirt. I want to go back to writing frivolous posts about love."
Suddenly, the fact that I'd bought a double-shot latte at Starbucks that morning, without once fearing that a bomb would land on my head, meant a lot more to me than it had only moments earlier.
"The raids yesterday exceeded thirty," Eve wrote. "I toss on my bed. The counting exhausts me. My tossing is almost in synch with the repetitive rhythm of explosions. For a while I imagine that I am no longer shaking with their roar. It's been four nights now, four nights and I don't want to sleep, and sleep in turn doesn't want me. Four nights and the call to prayer at dawn finds me awake."
That's all it took.
Just by telling me about herself -- nothing fancy, just that! -- by making herself visible to me as a human being, Eve made me care about her.
She made me love my silly life and she made me care about hers.
She made me remember that I do care.
More than that, she made me feel it.
That's how Eve made me care again about the news.