In the 24/7 news cycle, repetition is not revelation
BATON ROUGE, LA. — Here in Baton Rouge, while watching round-the-clock coverage of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, I've been thinking about "The House of Sounds," a chilling story by M.P. Shiel that began appearing in various forms in 1896. It's the tale of people who are, quite literally, dying of too much news.
Though he wrote "The House of Sounds" a century before our 24/7 news cycle, Mr. Shiel eerily anticipates the consequences of a modern media machine that can make us feel as if we're overwhelmed by the current of current events. The prevailing aesthetic of cable news, in which images are copied and multiplied with numb industrial efficiency, can remind one of a Warhol soup can - a picture multiplied into dim abstraction, the triumph of impression over insight.
Shiel, a pioneering author of horror and science fiction, begins his story with the account of a tradesman who goes mad after picking up a news magazine and becoming addicted to the latest scoop. In a subsequent narrative that inspired the story's title, a tortured soul named Harfager lives in a house haunted by the din of the outside world, yet he can't bring himself to leave - paralyzed by an obsessive curiosity about what will happen next.
Shiel invites us to consider whether the metaphysical clamor plaguing Harfager is simply a variation of the white noise of messages that conflicts the poor tradesman's thought.
Today's global village, in which Westerners offer themselves as a captive audience for the latest Baghdad bombing, celebrity trial, missing coed, or natural disaster, is a place where Shiel's Harfager would no doubt feel right at home. It has seemed particularly so in the wake of Katrina, a tragedy that has put the news industry's production cycle into overdrive.
At a time when news traveled at a glacial pace, Shiel indulged a generous measure of poetic license when he published "The House of Sounds." But with technology that now offers ostensibly breaking developments with the touch of a remote control, is overdosing on news that far-fetched?
In a culture that correctly acknowledges information as the coin of the realm in a democracy, Shiel's dim view of news consumption might sound blithely contrarian. And at a time when surveys routinely find abysmally low knowledge of current events on American campuses, it would seem that we need to pay more attention to the news rather than less. But we must also consider the quality of news as well as its quantity, and Katrina should invite us to wonder whether today's media juggernaut too often forfeits one to serve the other.
Katrina, the worst natural disaster in American history, has rightly commanded the attention of the world. As a longtime journalist and a lifelong resident of Louisiana, I've been heartened - often inspired - by international media interest in what promises to be an ongoing story with deep implications for the place I call home. I've acknowledged the significance of the storm's aftermath by writing a slew of Katrina stories, too. I plan to write many more.
But Shiel isn't critiquing news in its ideal form - the news that, true to its name, gives an audience something truly new and provocative. Instead, Shiel seems to focus his scorn on the dull drumbeat of words and images that gives us repetition rather than revelation, that promises refreshing insight, yet delivers dry refrain.
Scanning cable news channels, websites, and news blogs about Katrina or any other global tragedy, one can feel more than a little like Shiel's stimulation-addicted Harfager - a restless spectator so immersed in the present that he's robbed of a past and a future. Information immersion of this sort can narrow the mind as much as widen it, muting yesterday or tomorrow in favor of the ever-present Now.
It's a variation of what scholar Daniel Boorstin once called "presentism" - an addiction to the gripping moment that is hostile to historical perspectives and its useful window on coming challenges.
Watching the story of Katrina unfold before our eyes, many of us closest to the devastation have sometimes found the news coverage therapeutic, a way to acknowledge our pain. But at times, the surreal cycle of sameness that drives cable news - the recycling of footage in some Sisyphean rendition of Tragedy's Greatest Hits - has also made me feel paralyzed. I sense that I am both living through history and being condemned to repeat it in the same breath.
Though it first appeared near the dawn of the 20th century, "The House of Sounds" ominously foresees news as a nonstop operation, one in which the insatiable demands of TV and cyberspace for content so often lead to a reflexive rehearsal of what's already known. In our day, as in Shiel's prophetic vision, news and noise are frequently synonymous.
In suggesting that too much news is bad news, Shiel might have tellingly foreseen our perfect storm of sensory overload.
• Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.