Our fixation on scandalous news is coming at the expense of widening our intellect
Zimmerman, Hernandez, Zimmerman. America rejoice! We've found our latest news narcotic. CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC, whatever our preference, "gavel-to-gavel" coverage stands ready.
In some sense at least, this obsession is understandable. After all, George Zimmerman's trial speaks to concerns of evident public interest: racism, self-defense, and so on. In the same way, the murder charges against former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez offer the prospect of that third favorite of American stories — the fall from grace (redemption being the second favorite and heroism the first).
Nevertheless, Zimmerman's ubiquity illustrates a worsening symptom of American social dysfunction: our national addiction to rapid-fire culture news above and beyond all else.
We're closing our eyes.
As David Freddoso noted, last week's wall-to-wall Zimmerman reporting meant that "an American interested in what was happening in the world would have needed a premium TV package with foreign news networks." Case in point? Last week's Egyptian crisis was relegated to obscurity.
Of course, it's far too easy just to blame cable news. These outlets depend upon viewers for their revenue — the viewer gets what the editor believes he/she wants. Chuck Todd isn't to blame for what we watch; we, the American people, are responsible.
And whether it's the undiscovered stories of today or the unknown stories of tomorrow, we're missing a great deal.
Take space exploration.
In late June, scientists reported that Voyager 1, a probe launched 35 years ago, had discovered a transition zone at the edge of the solar system. On July 4, we learned that a team of astronomers had detected massive radio echoes originating from outside our galaxy. Then, on Tuesday, a Navy SEAL joined an Italian colleague in a critical repair job outside a space station, live on camera, 259 miles above the Earth. Simultaneous with the space walk, NASA mission planners were announcing their recommendation that the 2020 Mars rover search for life on the red planet.
You'd think that these hugely consequential stories would generate widespread reporting. Alas not. America today is obsessed with the immediacy of now. We demand simple news of easy accessibility and instant relevance. Stories like those from the space program — stories that require some thought — have lost their appeal. Through us, our news cycle has become an American Charybdis, furiously gulping up short-term stories and then puking them out in disinterest.
It doesn't have to be this way.
America is nothing without the pursuit of knowledge; this is the engine that drives us forward. Without it, we'd become a land of drones: indifferent, intellectually lethargic and culturally impotent. A people destined to the ignominy of mourning our better past.
We need to start dreaming again — not of Kardashians, but of possibilities. We must renew that finest tenet of the American spirit: the will, as President Kennedy put it, to be "bold."
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