Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2001 / 3 Teves 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Whatever happened to questions about the birds and the bees? -- STOP the presses. My one and only son has become a news junky.

"Dad? Is Osama bin Laden going to make another terror attack?"

It is bad enough that I, his dad, have been suffering for years from NOL - news overload. Worse, the condition appears to be hereditary.

"Dad? Does bin Laden have a nuke?"

I cannot come home from work these days without being greeted by foreign policy questions that would stump Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice put together.

"Dad? Does bin Laden have anthrax? Is it weapons-grade or just farm-grade?"

I suppose that on some level I should be delighted. After all, he's only 12. Still, there's a disquieting edge of anxiety in his voice, the kind that disrupts one's peaceful rest with bad dreams, a telltale sign of NOL.

"Dad? What's nerve gas?"

Whatever happened to questions about the birds and the bees? Doesn't sex talk produce enough anxieties in this generation? Do they need apocalyptic visions, too.

"Dad? If a dirty bomb goes off downtown, will it blow up our house? Or just make it impossible to live in?"

Let the world be warned. This monster is coming your way. Great Britain is one of the latest countries to host a war among 24-hour TV news channels: Sky News, BBC News 24, ITN and good old American-made CNN.

Asked if they are "suffering from news overload," several viewers wrote to the BBC Web page, including this response: "There isn't any danger of being overloaded by news. There is a danger, however, of being overloaded by the pointless speculation, surmise, opinion, journalists' obsessions and gossip that fill most programs that pretend to be 'the news' these days."

Ah, my British friend, welcome to the News World Order.

Welcome to a world in which there quite often are more news channels and hours in a news cycle than there is news for the news channels to report. To fill the extra time, they come up with pseudo-news that sounds like news, but it's not.

As I write this commentary, for example, I am hooked by news announcers and reporters who insist with breathless urgency that America is "closing in on bin Laden." I was just as excited when they were "closing in on bin Laden" last week. But, I am beginning to wonder, is there some hype here?

"What does your gut tell you?" I hear a respected network anchor ask an Arab journalist about street reaction in the Arab world to the bin Laden "home movie" videotape.

Oh, no, not the "gut" question again. At this point, as writer James Wolcott says of "information overload" in the January Vanity Fair, if you are going to turn to your innards to tell you what's happening, "Why don't you just call in Miss Cleo, the psychic?"

Maybe that's not such a far-fetched idea. How long, I wonder, before a news channel decides to get an edge on the market by calling the hotline of Miss Cleo, the TV psychic, to help find bin Laden? Can tarot cards beat the CIA? Hey, it couldn't hurt.

Unfortunately, hyped pseudo-news does not calm my budding news junky. Experts say news overload is not good for children. Kids have yet to develop even the meager skills we grown-ups have for discerning truly urgent news from the repeats and the trivia.

TV presents all news as equally important. Every story that happens to be on the screen at any given moment is the equivalent of page one in a newspaper or the cover of a news magazine during that moment.

The impact is intensified further by the ubiquitous "crawl" that every news channel offers to hypnotize us into trying to keep track of two streams of information at once.

So, I am no longer surprised when my son asks me the same question today that he asked a week earlier.

"Dad? Does Saddam Hussein have a nuke?"

I simply answer the question as calmly as possible, tell him that there's nothing to worry about.

Then I urge him to finish his homework. Or change the channel. Or read a book. Or go out and shoot a few hoops with me.

At times like these, he's not looking for technical answers as much as he is looking for reassurance. Even when you don't have the answers to all of their questions, my schoolteacher grandma used to say, it is important that you give your kids reassurance.

Right. Tell them the good news about life and love. They will have plenty of time to deal with the bad news later.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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11/08/01: Lessons about terror from the 'hood
11/06/01: Getting used to the 'new normal'
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10/30/01: It's not just about bin Laden
10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
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10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
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09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
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05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
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05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
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05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
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03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
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03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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