Dickey: Newsheimers and the News

Last week I came across an interesting neologism: newsheimers or Newsheimer's disease, which I guess has been around for a while to describe a mind overwhelmed with 24/7 headlines and unable to retain important information or to impose order on it. I may actually have heard this word before—I have this nagging feeling that I did—but if so I forgot it.

Google and Nexis, the aids I lean on to compensate for my drained brain (even as they worsen the condition by flushing still more unprocessed trivia through it), show that the first available reference to newsheimers was on the CBS morning show 14 years ago. In a bit of incredibly pointless time-filling blather, Connie Chung was trying to remember when she took a Florida vacation, but the date just wouldn't come back to her. "I suffer from newsheimers," she said blandly. (You do recall Connie "Thanks for the Memories" Chung, don't you? Her swan song atop a piano on MSNBC last year was one of the great cringe-worthy moments of modern broadcast news, the inane gone insane.)

My good friend Mort Rosenblum, an American foreign correspondent who has spent the last 40 years reporting in some 200 present and former countries, is trying to fight back against newsheimers in his charming and persuasive new book, "Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival." "For all the words and images we call 'media'," says Mort, "precious few trained eyes see distant reality up close, and these grow fewer by the year. When reporters do warn us of a crisis, we pay scant attention. We react to effect and ignore the causes. And then, overwhelmed, we cite that old saw as a path of least resistance: you can't worry about what you can't change. We must turn this around: you can't change what you don't worry about."

That is precisely the problem, of course: this onslaught of obliviousness. But Mort, old buddy, you're an idealist. News is business. It's about readership, ratings and advertising. "Worry" is not something audiences are going to seek out and pay for. Indeed, the current thinking dominating the news business holds that thinking is not something most people want to do at all. Too much like work. Audiences favor stories that don't actually affect them, pulp fact about which they can develop strong and pointless opinions: the more or less real-life soap operas of sleazy starlets and the occasional murder mystery, but only if the victim or suspect is famous or photogenic.

The result of this mercenary mindlessness is an increasing distortion not only of the news but of policy, with unintended and potentially disastrous consequences on the ground. We are all familiar, now, with the way weapons of mass deception were used by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, all of which was made possible by the obsequious consent of most of the press. (That chapter in Mort's book bears the devilish title "Shock and 'Aw, S---'.")

But faced with the world's weary apathy, even activists working for very worthy causes feel compelled to use dubious communications strategies. As my colleague Arlene Getz pointed out in her recent article "Packaging a Tragedy", to attract attention to the Darfur crisis, conscientious campaigners simplified, then oversimplified, the conflict until it seemed a Manichean no-brainer: bad Arabs carrying out a genocide against good Africans. In the early days some of the publicity even implied there was a Muslim vs. Christian angle in Darfur, as there had been elsewhere in Sudan. Evangelical and Jewish groups in the United States pushed hard to isolate those loathsome Arab Islamists in Khartoum and successfully got the Bush administration to call the Darfur atrocities "genocide." In fact, from the beginning it's been Muslims killing Muslims in western Sudan, and as the situation has deteriorated, Arabs are killing Arabs and Africans are killing Africans.

Even simplifying the message is not enough to break through the mental fog of this Newsheimer's disease that the public suffers from. You've got to grab attention with the same kind of addictive celebrity coverage that is this century's opiate of the masses. Thus activists enlist stars like Angelina Jolie, because these days a cause that's not célèbre may be a cause that's hardly noticed at all.

Over the weekend we saw the logical extension of the sloganeering that surrounds the Darfur issue with the exposure of a misguided humanitarian operation by a small French aid group. Members of the organization, which is variously known as "L'Arche de Zoé" (Zoe's Ark) and "Children Rescue," were arrested in Chad and charged with trying to kidnap 103 little kids, aged one to 10, from around the city of Abéché near the Darfur border. The emotional reasoning behind the group's actions is laid out in French in the video that opens its Web site. Stark messages are interspersed with stark pictures of refugee camps, burning villages, and (cute) suffering or soon-to-be suffering kids: "You have to act to save these children. Now! In a few months they will be dead … Let's give them the chance to live." Who could resist such an appeal?

Yet on the ground there didn't seem to be enough orphans to go around. Children who lose their parents most often are taken by other members of their extended families. Zoé's Ark announced last spring it wanted to save 10,000 under the age of five. In the event, using local middlemen, it rounded up about 100, not all of whom were without parents, and some of whom may have been abducted.

As more serious and responsible aid organizations know, and fear, this tale will soon blend into the stream of half-told and half-remembered stories sluicing through our consciousness, devaluing the serious work that needs to be done, making it even harder to attract the kind of thoughtful, long-term support for the negotiations and development projects that are vital to build a real peace.

There are many other and worse examples of newsheimers disease and its disastrous side effects, of course. How could it be that the war in Iraq, which costs American taxpayers well over $2 billion a week, which has taken the lives of almost 4,000 U.S. soldiers, is fading as in issue in the current presidential campaign? How else to imagine that we might yet go to war with Iran to hit nuclear facilities that are already being inspected by the United Nations to make sure that they are not used for weapons? Oversimplification, vilification, distortion and misjudgment are all symptomatic of a greater problem, which we can joke about as newsheimers, but is real enough. Put simply: How quickly we forget.