Sink or Skim

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By: David S. Hirschman

I wasn’t always a media junkie. For most of my life, in fact, I didn’t really have my finger on the pulse at all. Even through college I rarely read a daily paper at all, in print or online, and I didn’t feel the worse for it.

As I’ve gotten into the news biz, however, and with the growth of Internet news sites and blogs, that has changed. These days I feel responsible to know (at least on a very cursory level) a larger and larger chunk of what is going on everywhere. …Rebels in Nepal take hostages. Drunk driver in Brooklyn hits Russian mafioso. … The news is all a click away, and it’s possible to sift among thousands of newspapers and magazines from all around the world online (not to mention emags and blogs), parsing and digesting snippets of information. As a result I feel a kind of obligation to be more or less up to date on a wide variety of subjects, simply to keep up.

But I realize more and more that my up-to-date knowledge of events has actually become shallower, and that the information doesn’t affect me all that much. Twenty-two dead in Iraq bombing. Married magazine editor caught with call-girl in airplane bathroom. An event pops up, gets knocked around the blogosphere for a while, enters my consciousness, and then fades out just as quickly. There’s always a new journalism scandal or a bit of unexpected intrigue, booting the last one into obsolescence.

These days, I usually don’t make it all the way through an article. I’ll read the lede and the nut graf, and maybe I’ll scroll down to hunt around for hidden relevant bits, but if I take the time to finish every article I won’t be able to get through (or, at least, to) all the other stuff that is part of my daily news diet, which I consume, for the most part, online. … Brangelina triplets weaned on wheat grass and coconut milk. Congressman found guilty of accepting bribes from Saudi oil magnates. … I do make exceptions for a few longer feature pieces each month (maybe there’s something important in the New Yorker or Vanity Fair that I want to spend some time with), but for the most part, if I want to keep up, I don’t have time.

I’m not sure how healthy all of this is. From time to time, I’ll have a day free and start reading a novel, but I’ve noticed that it has become much harder to get ensconced in, say, Tolstoy, than it was before. I keep having to remind myself to enjoy each page and each phrase instead of scanning through the paragraphs trying to decipher a main idea and then moving on quickly to the next.

Sometimes I have dinner with a friend who works in the film industry and I am amazed at how little she knows about current events. She’ll ask something about Bush and Iran, and won’t know the previous week’s subplot; the enriched uranium, the threats from Condi and Rumsfeld, the posturing at the U.N.. It makes me a little jealous, actually. Because, while I do want to know the big stuff, in the end, my moment-by-moment following of most stories won’t make much difference in the way I live my life. And here she is, blissfully unaware there might be military strikes on Iran in the near future (or so the headlines of stories I haven?t read all the way through suggest). Instead, she?s thinking about third-world documentaries and mise-en-scene.

Even when I was vacationing in Argentina recently, I found that I could never get totally off the grid. The New York Times is available (albeit at extortionist prices) at plenty of newsstands in Buenos Aires, and even in the smaller towns in the mountains of Patagonia you can usually find an Internet caf? (or twelve), thus giving you the option to find out the usual little-about-everything. … A drug being manufactured to combat new fungus particular to obese youth. NASA sends $16 billion probe to repair other broken probe on distant planet. … I tried to make myself ignore it, but there was always the nagging sense that I might be missing something vital.

Sometimes I wonder how much of my brain is being taken up by this news-knowledge. Could this be taking up space that should be devoted to more pressing things? Could I be, in fact, replacing memories of my childhood with gossip that Britney Spears is fighting stretch marks? Could my second grade teacher’s name be replaced by the knowledge that Starbucks has opened an outlet inside a Tibetan monastery in Lhasa or that a cop killer has been found to have robotic chip in his brain? I mean, who knows how much memory is actually housed in our hard drives?

In any case, the upside of knowing all these random, often useless, facts is that I have become very good at crossword puzzles. And there was a study in a medical journal that I found on a Google search that showed that doing crossword puzzles can keep you from developing Alzheimer’s.

I’d normally close with some compelling summary or wry comment tying everything together, but if you’re like me you probably stopped reading this column 700 words ago anyway.

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