“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate,”
– Henry David Thoreau
These days, citizen journalists are almost everywhere reporting on the ebb and flow of the virus, from Seattle and San Francisco to Chicago and New York. It’s hard not to receive the news in some shape or form, and, while some of the reports are more insightful than others, what seems to link all of them is that they heat up the conversation. That’s what mass media has always done, at least in modern times. Italian novelist and theorist, Umberto Eco, once described the media as a furnace. “Grazie, Umberto. Lavoratori del mondo, unitevi.”
Umberto might have added that, if it bleeds it leads. In the current situation, when the bodies pile up in China, Italy, the UK and elsewhere, they push nearly everything else aside. It’s right to keep body counts and to report them, and also to make sure that viewers, readers and listeners know that older people are dying more often than younger people and that the poor and people of color are much more at risk than well off folks with white skins.
I get most of my news online and in emails from friends and family members close to home and very far away. I try to shun TV news. It seems so shallow. Yesterday, I received an email from a friend in Brooklyn, N.Y. who said that five elderly people died in his building. That was too close for comfort. One of the primary challenges in these times is to report accurately without whipping up hysteria. There’s more than enough of that to go around. I’ve noticed that some citizen journalists delight in predicting doom and gloom and describing enormous political changes that are looming on the horizon.
I am not so sure about big changes, and I take issue with friends who point out that Zoom has radically altered the ways that we communicate in the crisis and will go on doing so. I have taken part in several Zoom sessions, and, while I like seeing familiar faces and hearing familiar voices on my own computer at home, I don’t believe that Zoom will change the world for the better. Indeed, junk news has proliferated. I’m reminded of Thoreau who pointed out that the telegraph did not lead automatically to the transmission of more intelligent messages, but rather to their more rapid transmission. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate,” Thoreau observed. He added, “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
Were he alive today, he might observe that Zoom, PBS and the like tell us that Ivanka Trump has traveled by air despite warnings not to do so. It’s good to know that idiocy runs in the family, but what about so-called ordinary Americans. How are they traveling? In my own neck of the woods, they have been out on the roads in increasing numbers over the last several days, despite the fact that county officials have urged citizens to stay at home.
In a recent piece in The New Yorker, the editor David Remnick argued that the reasons for the “American failure” to respond adequately and quickly to Corona were “lack of preparation, delayed mobilization, insufficient testing, and a reluctance to halt travel.” Strange that he says nothing about the for-profit American medical industry. Strange, too, that he says that Bernie Sanders “did so much to transform the debate over health care,” and yet doesn’t use the words socialism or socialized medicine. Apparently certain words and phrases are not to be used for fear of offending advertisers and bobo subscribers to the magazine.
One of the bigger stories in my view is the fact that Trump and his thugs are willing for bodies to pile up if and when the Dow goes up. Isn’t that the way U.S. capitalism has operated from the start? The system has accepted the unacceptable deaths of working class Americans on the job and in toxic environments when their labor means bonuses for corporate executives, rising profits and fat dividends for investors.
I say fuck the stock market, fuck profits and investors and save lives. Also, liberate the media from millionaires and billionaires. In the midst of the pandemic, life goes on. There’s been too little reporting on that front, though I was delighted to read recently an account by a citizen journalist in New York who observed that for the first time in a long time you can hear the birds singing in the city. In my neighborhood people go out and howl every night at 7 or 8 p.m. That seems to have happened spontaneously and without corporate sponsorship, but that may change. As they say on the evening news, “stay tuned.”
Meanwhile, save us from unthinking New York Times reporters such as Neil Irwin who recently asked, “Who would have thought that a crisis that began with mortgage defaults in American suburbs in 2007 would lead to a fiscal crisis in Greece in 2010? Or that a stock market crash in New York in 1929 would contribute to the rise of fascists in Europe in the 1930s?”
All-too often, New York Times reporters don’t make the connections that need to be made, but rather see each story as separate and discrete and not part of a web that links the seen and the unseen, the present and the future and the seemingly irrelevant detail to the fate of empires.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)