HAVE you ever returned from your vacation in the wildest wilds, opened your first hot-off-the-press newspaper, and said to yourself, ``Is this all there is?'' If so, you and your blas'e attitude are the nightmare of all people who depend upon journalism for their livelihood.
Out of duty or out of pleasure, most readers and nightly Tom-Dan-and-Peter-watchers soon queue up again for the daily deluge of information known as The News.
But after our well-deserved time off on a desert island, even those of us who are in the business share with our customers this same post-holiday doubt: If the news is really so all-fired important, why does missing those urgent bulletins seem to cost the abstainer no more than skipping soap opera?
The premise - the promise - of journalism is that it reports on Real People in the Real World. But if this is true, why do you feel, after your little retreat, that you are, in fact, reentering a fictional world, full of fantasy characters known as Prominent Spokesmen and Unimpeachable Sources? Why do the events themselves go a bit Alice-in-Wonderland, as if history were a staged pageant - or maybe a press conference of a staged pageant? (One thinks of the disproportionately vast hordes of journalists trailing the Pope, or the small armies that will be stalking the presidential candidates as the primaries approach.)
Coming back from all those natural facts like woods and mountains and beaches, an ex-vacationer may find the facts of the allegedly Real World of Real People - documented by journalism - to be as whimsical, as artfully arranged as Disneyland.
Do all the names and dates and stats - the box scores of baseball games and political contests and the stock market - add up to the sum of the significance of our times?
Will the famous face, reproduced on millions of screens, and the unforgettable event, memorialized by a thousand headlines, be remembered six months or a year from now? Even if the answer is yes, another question besets the skeptical consumer of journalism, temporarily gaining a detached perspective after summer holiday: Is the news just a collection of personalities and events, hastily and a little too eagerly judged to be important personalities and events? Or is history something more than what happens in Washington, in Moscow, in London, in Tokyo, in Paris, in Peking - on the great stages of public life?
``By how much more the invention of the zipper ... has outweighed the meaning of Waterloo,'' George Steiner writes in the books section of The New Yorker, adding for good measure: ``Horticulture, housecleaning, stranded whales may mean as much - indeed far more - than peace treaties.''
But, of course, there are no ``scoops'' in horticulture,no ``big names'' in housekeeping; and in these fields a reporter's opportunities for exotic travel are minimal. Besides, if the subject is housekeeping, what do you do for close-ups on television, or for those color spreads that threaten to turn print journalism into variations of the USA Today weather map?
Steiner is not joking in making his case for ``historians of mentality'' over historians of the event. The ``movements in human sensibility,'' the ``continental drift'' in a culture - these changes, he submits, ``may go far deeper than the external ebb and tide of dogmatic struggles, so-called decisive battles (they hardly ever are), or political crises.''
What then does Steiner think the real news is today? ``It is the slow, often agonizingly laborious dissemination and enactment of the notion that one ought not to maltreat women, children, animals, or even the flora on a polluted planet.''
How do you put this on the front page under a banner headline? How do you set it to pictures on the nightly news? (A little life-style chic won't do. The task may require no less a revolution in journalism than the revolution in political agenda Steiner describes. But until ways are found to present the ``history of mentality'' as effectively as the old who-what-when-where news, readers and viewers will continue to return from vacation feeling that they may have missed a twist or two of the plot but none of the themes. A Wednesday and Friday column