The numbers seemed not just unreal, but random. Why not 500,000, or only 50? How big would the number have to be before I could register it? And, even if I did, what difference would it make? None to those who were suffering, and none to my own plans, arranged months ago. No matter what the number was, I was going to spend the afternoon driving through Georgia. While broken bodies were being piled on the shore, I would be standing in a gas station comparing the calorie cost of Cracker Jacks and an ice cream bar. As women crouched and wailed in the merciless sun, I would be listening to my son's new William Shatner CD, amused by the nosebleed heights of pop culture irony.
I was being a textbook example of one of the problems of modern media. When Neil Postman published his epoch-making book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death" in 1984, he called the relevant chapter, "Now... This."
Those are the little words a television announcer uses when moving from one story to the next, and Postman proposes that they constitute a grammatical innovation: if a conjunction joins things, "Now... this" not only separates them but establishes a bright line of irrelevance. The words, Postman says, "indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see." No news can be so miserable, titillating, or alarming that it can't be briskly erased, and the way cleared for something new.
Postman would have felt vindicated by the main page on AOL the morning I left. It showed a closeup photo of a distraught young man with dark brown skin, his head cradled in one hand and tears streaming down his face. The headline read (if memory's correct), "70,000 Feared Dead."
But below that there were several other news stories. After all the tsunami wasn't the only thing happening in the world, you can't think about it all the time. Each had a short headline marked with a bullet point. The last one read: "Holiday Travel Nightmares."
Nightmares? Do we know anything about nightmares, in comparison with what that weeping man knew? Who had he lost? What could I ever know of his suffering? I was repelled. But later that day, after hours of creeping down I-95 at 20 mph, I was griping to my husband about the holiday traffic.
But I think there are at least two other things going on with this kind of media coverage. One is that "Now... this" presents us with a world in which nothing is connected to anything. The universe appears to be a series of disjointed units. There is no underlying coherence, no meaning. A hundred years ago, most of the news you encountered was directly relevant to your life, and it was something you could act on. Now the great majority of our news is wholly exterior to our personal concerns, and while we can feel distressed by it, we can't do anything about it. We have a sense of futility. Life is a parade of random pictures, some terrible and some funny, and you can't do anything about them. All you can do is watch.
Which, finally, is the most unsettling aspect of the media-tragedy package. After all, it's not just you and the victims. There's something standing between you, a news delivery system that wins the longer they can keep you glued to the screen. Stunning tragedy pulls in the viewing customers, who can be trusted to continue to hang around through the ads for drain cleaner and hand lotion.
In a world that seems pre-packaged and artificial, the tears and wreckage are undeniably real. They hit hard, and there is a part of us numbed consumers that longs to be hit hard by something, anything. Our deeply emotional response doesn't feel only painful, it's also voluptuous. Our capacity to absorb overwhelming visual spectacle, trained by the million-dollar special effects in entertainment, is particularly arrested by something so endlessly horrible, irrefutably true. When we see a weeping man a world away, we feel a rush of aliveness and an emotional click that we may not have experienced by any other means for months.