I am now a little more than 72 hours into a news blackout and the results have been marvelous.
The decision to quarantine my mind, and spare my soul the slings and arrows of fear-based journalism and morale-sucking stupidity, was actually compelled by a mistake. See, I was in the kitchen making a sandwich for dinner, which I occasionally do because I like sandwiches for dinner, and flipped on the little television we keep in there because my bride likes to watch the Poverty Brothers ransack houses while she’s cooking up her world class chili.
At any rate, I was slathering some toasted bread with a marvelous horse-radish sauce we get from Tule Lake, California, when the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt appeared on the screen. It was so instantly and egregiously bad that I dropped my sammich and drew my cell phone – in what would have been an admirable transition drill on the shooting range — to snap a quick photo of what the bright lights at NBC had decided to broadcast to the entire country.
If you can imagine the woman in this photo sobbing in manufactured terror – or maybe it was real, it’s so hard to tell with the Chicken Littles — and bemoaning the imminent collapse of civilization, you’ll get a better picture of what they were trying to accomplish.
When they were done exploiting this woman – apparently in a concerted effort to terrify old people and dimwits — they cut smoothly back to Lester Holt, made up to look stern and steady, like Captain Picard in outer space sizing up the Borg from the bridge of the Enterprise. But instead of sizing anything up and instilling confidence in the crew Holt just began heaping more terror and fear on his audience while highlighting and underscoring the laundry list of real or imagined inefficiencies and problems in our national response to a horrible pandemic.
It was relentless. And bad. And irresponsible. Worst of all it was utterly devoid of solutions. It was a long, dark tunnel of doomsaying and misery leading the audience to the eye-rolling and now utterly predictable editorial conclusion: The Evil Landlord Donald Trump is killing everyone.
Which is neither true nor helpful. It’s precisely the kind of mindless bullshit Roosevelt meant when he talked about the critic versus the man in the arena. American journalists have been so busy ginning up phony crises that when a real one strikes they have lost all sense of responsibility for the manner in which they report it. So far what we have seen is just whinging and finger-wagging and self-righteous condemnation.
As if that’s good enough to win a war.
But here’s some truth to chew on: we aren’t going to suddenly and rapidly reverse the decades of off-shoring our manufacturing – an epic strategic fail made in the blind pursuit of cheap sneakers and iPhones — which has led directly to the deficiencies in supply and logistics we are now enduring.
Whose fault is that, exactly? Ours, that’s who. Us. All of us. The American consumer. Every swinging dick, and every time we buy something made in a nation full of people who eat pangolins and bats in wet markets, injecting killer viruses into the human population, and who now also enjoy the manufacturing power — and the leverage that comes with it — that we stupidly handed over to them so we could fill our shelves with cheap Chinese shit and the fantasy of a flat earth.
But Lester Holt won’t touch that because he thinks its racist and also because it’s a lot easier to pump the fear machine — its sells more dish soap and heart medication between terror segments.
The nation’s bad journalists have gone so quickly internal – which is a phrase of derision Marines use for non-hackers who dissemble when things get rough – they are essentially combat ineffective. They aren’t helping us cut through friction and find solutions, which would be one role they might adopt. They ARE the friction.
There are occasionally some, and one thinks mostly accidental, positives in the universally lame national coverage. Lt. General Todd Semonite, from the US Army Corps of Engineers, is one such story. Semonite is tasked with building field hospitals and his turn on 60 Minutes last Sunday evening was both brilliant and inspirational — and largely because his personality bulldozed Leslie Stahl’s lame attempts to bait him with politics. She ended up looking very small.
Clearly a warfighter, General Semonite was in his element, employing Clausewitz’ well-known strategic proverb: the greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a great plan while explaining where and how he’s going to turn Seattle’s football stadium into a hospital. The General eats nails, and it was clear from his attitude that he lives and breathes another valuable leadership mantra: don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. Semonite is leaning forward into the fight, and clearly ready to crush the mincing Leslie Stahls of the world under the wheels of his chariot.
Roosevelt would have loved Semonite, and in a shirts vs skins pickup game I’m picking the good general in the first round.
Anyway, my 72 hour mental health sequester was driven, in part, by an inescapable contrast. The World War 2 generation was blessed with giants of journalism like Ernie Pyle, Eric Sevareid, George Weller and Alan Moorehead. These were enormous figures, brave men whose stories helped lift entire nations up in the darkest hours. These were men who were strafed, machine-gunned, bailed out of airplanes into the arms of Burmese headhunters, rode on tanks across North Africa, and got shelled on the beaches of Anzio and Normandy. They wrote great stories and were made of iron and that iron instilled confidence and confidence always matters in a war effort.
We get Don Lemon.
So, after observing NBCs contribution to the war effort, and because police work taught me to stop tilting at the windmills of stupidity, I turned the television off and resolved that I would eschew any kind of news — television, print, or digital — for a minimum of 72 hours. That was a hard call because I love the Wall Street Journal, where they still do journalism and rake the political coals with equal, adult, measure. Of an evening, I like to sit in my study with a cup of decaf tea and snap the paper open and read the intelligent stories written by intelligent people who just continue delivering thoughtful pieces at a steady and reassuring pace.
But alas, I gave them all up.
There is an old adage in sailing that runs something like this: “Below 50° south there is no law. Below 60° south there is no God.” We can find versions of that same sentiment elsewhere: “There is No God west of Pueblo” being another famous expression of the same idea from the 1890s, but here in 2020, in the middle of this pandemic, we seem to have lost our sense of proportion and scale. The people shaving off their eyebrows over the appearance of portable morgues in New York City don’t seem to realize that condition has been the reality in Los Angeles for decades. So many people die every day in LA they have yards full of refrigerated trucks that are crammed with dead bodies. Now, suddenly, such a thing is uproarious.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take this virus lightly. I embrace it as a true horror. But we seem to be spending too much time focused in the wrong direction, and a lot of that is driven by the media and how very bad and apocalyptic their coverage has been. The time for sorting out whose at fault and who needs blaming for what comes well after we beat the wind and the waves, not in the middle of a storm in the roaring forties.
But perspective is a thing easily lost.
Here in Sisters our local scolds have hijacked a community forum on Facebook. While its original intent was to raise awareness — a loathsome modern phrase — about criminal behavior in the community, in the pandemic it has rapidly devolved into a space for the stumping righteous, angry scolds, closeted bureaucrats, and just plain rats.
A space like that is always an open mic night for crazies, naturally, but it turns out the crazies multiply like gremlins under Stay at Home orders. Why is the bicycle shop open?! the scolds demand to know, implying that some brownshirts or jackboots should go seal the proprietors in or have them arrested.
And on and on it goes.
It’s unnerving to see how quickly and easily Americans have been knocked off their center of gravity and gone stumbling around shouting their entitlement to the heavens: “I’m an American, I can’t get a virus!” But, dear friends, you can. You can actually get the virus. And you might even die from it. Being mad at some politician you hate won’t change that one little bit, but washing your hands might.
I don’t know how long I’ll stay away from the news. There haven’t been many super valuable takeaways offered up by the industry three months into this thing, and I doubt there will be anytime soon. If there is, by some miracle, I’ll probably miss it. And anyway it’s spring which means I’ve got to dust off the horses and plant my garden and square away the beehives and finish burning pine needles before the scowling Fire Chiefs descend on me with writs and torts and orders to quash.
In the meantime, here’s hoping you stay in the fight, and keep your nerve and your focus on victory despite the Zulus coming over the wall. Which is not an easy thing to do in the way we have to do it…by merely sitting on our asses.