Losing touch with the news

March 02, 1994|By Russell Baker

WE SPENT three weeks where it never snows and there lost touch with the news, which is often fatal to journalists. In journalism survival requires a zealot's belief in the importance of the present moment, and three weeks of refuge from present moments can leave that faith in tatters.

Three weeks without immersion in the millions of absolutely vital present moments that constitute journalism's definition of three weeks -- Ah reader, would you believe how little of consequence really happens in three weeks? Maybe nothing?

"A cease-fire in the Balkans you call nothing?" someone will ask, someone fleetingly lifting eyes and ears from the cannonading of present moments pouring in from CNN, New York Times, Connie Chung, "Inside Edition," ESPN, "Oprah," Time, "Entertainment Tonight," the whole, in fact, madhouse of what is called "information," such is the parlous state of the language, heaven having refused to help us.

"Information," indeed. Information's job is to enrich us, not to bury us in popcorn.

Information, as opposed to "information," would not shout of a cease-fire in the Balkans, but sigh quietly of "another cease-

fire" in the Balkans, nudging us to reflect that in lands where firing has gone on eternally it would be foolish to hope for much from "another cease-fire."

As for the mass murder in Israel, it is notable for the great number of victims in a single incident, but matched against the number of Arabs and Israelis killed since their killings began years ago, it is a trifling number.

Diplomacy will or won't be impeded, but only for the moment, and afterward it will succeed or fail in its own time, and probably, over the long run, do both.

You ask, "After three weeks of abstinence from present moments, how do you know of these things?"

A quick study, reader. That's how. The journalist who cannot fly from Washington tonight, land in Ulan Bator tomorrow afternoon and three hours later file a comprehensive report on the political, economic and moral crisis confronting Ulan Bator is not worth the cardboard it takes to make a press card. He must be a quick study.

Preparing to re-enter the world of present moments, I buried myself two hours ago in the newspapers of the past three weeks. They tell of the Balkans and Israel and of incessant blizzards coating the north in ice, abandoned cars and those sinister creations of the snow-removal artists, ancient blackened mountains of curbside snow that are urban America's winter wonderland.

These stories provide a shameful twinge of sadistic pleasure for one who has passed three weeks where the climate was perfect day and night and the only annoyance a woodpecker wearing his beak out on the house's clapboards.

Still, even the evil-weather stories show how fragile journalism's memory can be. They bring to mind an insupportable New York winter 10 or 12 years ago when a grotesque black tower of snow stood, apparently unmeltable, at Hudson and Jane Streets well into August, if I remember correctly, and if not, so what?

"The artistic lie is always preferable to the inartistic truth, except in journalism," according to Henry James, who despised journalism.

And no wonder, I say to myself, as I wade through thousands of square yards of prose about young people engaged in ice-and-snow sports and dance in Norway.

This is intertwined with a tawdry tale about one Tonya Harding, whose fate in these frigid endeavors so fascinates all America that scarcely a couch potato can bear to turn off the television no matter how mercilessly CBS wields its brutal commercials.

So obsessed with Tonya Harding, America apparently lost all interest in President Clinton. The president, whoever he be, is America's superstar, for the obvious reason that presidents lend themselves to the simple situation-comedy format which television, being an entertainment medium, needs to convey news. Imagine trying to get the TV audience interested in some 500 members of Congress and their families.

So for three weeks of breathtakingly vital present moments, President Superstar gave way to a sad waif in an ice rink. The thought begins to thrill me. Must be time to resume journalism.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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