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World Beat


Let me say it once more: Rory was right. We should have known more about their grievances and our vulnerabilities. And if we had, we might have even -- let's say it -- avoided the catastrophe (soon, no doubt, the blame chapter will start, and might fairly encompass the media as well as the intelligence community).

And yet, as I listened to Rory -- I must confess -- much of what he was saying was still boring.

Foreigners always always ask why the American media doesn't have a greater interest in other countries. It's hard to give a polite answer. The impolite answer is that America is the big story.

Back in the eighties, I decided I ought to live abroad for a while because that's what journalists did. I argued then with a friend who was a movie executive who said leaving the country was a bad idea, that people who lived outside the U.S. fell out of the loop, lost a certain sort of savvy and pop-culture knowingness. This, as it turned out, was completely true, as I learned after a year in Rome. There was little currency in knowing about anything outside America -- and having missed a season of trends or celebrities here, you were definitely at a media-career disadvantage.

This culture, this mass media, this rate of change, this wealth-creation machine crowds out everything else. (Not just for us but for foreigners too -- there is no American obsession like a foreigner's American obsession.) What interest, outside of universities and left-wing holdovers, there might have been in foreignness got absorbed in the globalization thing, which is really about the spread of Americanism anyway. And it's not only that the American story is larger, and better-packaged, than the rest-of-the-world story but that the very language of the story is different. We are (or were) living in a post-political, post-ideological, post-information world, whereas everybody else was still talking some sixties-type talk, embarrassing in its earnestness, in its stubborn politicalness, in its lack of market-sensitiveness.

But here we are: The world is as it is.

A piquant irony of recent days is that the new CNN chief, Walter Isaacson, who in this post-news era had brilliantly transformed himself from a political journalist into a non-news genius, and who had been brought in to CNN to revive it with his news-you-can-use skills, is now presiding over a CNN resurgence as the once and future hard-news channel.

Rory's point is really, I think, about bad news. What we've done is sheltered ourselves from it. News is boring because it is bad -- because there is no easy-to-follow story line, no characters to identify with, no money to be made off it. If it sucks, which bad news does, you can't monetize it.

An interest in bad news demands a certain high level of national seriousness and gravity and, possibly, hopelessness.

"Can entertainment companies produce news?" is Rory's bottom-line, left-wing question. News you need, he means, rather than news you want. What, in other words, is the market rationale for producing the kind of boring, bad news that might give you the background that could provide some warning for when you're going to be attacked -- but that no one watches?

Now, of course, ratings are up for news that sucks.

And it is possible, I think, although not necessarily desirable, that the shock to our systems has been so great that a true cultural inversion has taken place, and what we want to do now is look into the abyss.



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