DUCK SOUP: Let it Rain

There is less news gathering going on today than any time in the past forty years, but there is more news reporting than ever. Kind of weird, isn't it? What we are seeing is less and less factual content and more and more opinion -- like the commentary you are reading right now. Meanwhile the number and diversity of information sources is exploding. People still put their pants on one leg at a time but you can get that startling report in newsletter, newsprint, tabloid, magazine, radio, video, cable, satellite, online, pointcast, or broadcast form. Your beeper can give you basketball scores while you sit at a football game watching hockey on your 4" color tv. The scrolled text that once appeared on tv screens only to announce imminent tornadoes is a full time alternative input on many cable channels. Multimedia rules!Twenty-five years ago I read a science fiction story -- the name of which I can't remember -- about a world in which Information Sickness had become epidemic. Peoples' brains were breaking down because of the overload. As the data bit stream accelerates I think about that book and wonder if the epidemic is at hand. A curious sidelight to this issue is that in preparing this essay I have spent more than six hours in four public libraries in two states and considerable time on the World Wide Web without being able to track down that story. I can access mountains of facts, whole mountain ranges of supposedly vital information, but I can't even find the right haystack let alone the needle I know is there.As a survival tactic we cope with the data blizzard by focussing on a manageable handful of ideas and ignoring the rest. What emerges is a picture of our own device which begins to resemble talking to oneself in the mirror. The Internet provides the current extreme case: there are millions of sources and relatively few editors. When a net surfer accesses only what she wants to hear, she creates a personal wave of information and misinformation and rides toward an individualized beach. There can't be a beach party at the end of the day because everyone winds up on a different continent. Common ground is disappearing. More and more we experience echoes of Paul Simon's lyric, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."Walter Cronkite used to be the most trusted man in America. His news was the news. The audience believed he was objective. Today we are more skeptical. We assume that everyone has an angle and that purportedly objective reporting is merely pretense. We never considered reviewing Mr. Cronkite's investment portfolio. Today we simply shrug when we learn that individual reporters or publishers have vested interests that color the news. Of course they do.On the other hand, commentary takes sides and admits it. There is a level at which you can trust Rush Limbaugh because you know where he stands. You may agree with me that he is usually incorrect, but at least his filter is obvious. You may think that my anti-growth, pro-population control, anti-corporate, pro-solar power biases are wrong-headed, but you can depend on me to stick to them. I believe absolutely that the only hope for human survival lies in a healthy ecosystem, that we are of nature and not apart. My prejudice colors my vision and my version of the news and you know it.As the storm of information rains down on us, commentary is a dry roof overhead -- part of our coping strategy. The best we can hope to do is choose a few sources on the left and right, looking backward or forward, deeply religious as well as humanist, technophile and Luddite, and then choose our path. Without commentary to funnel the water into a handful of manageable streams, we would all be paddleless fools headed upcreek into the data-bit maelstrom.

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