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May 19, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 3

  News is a commodity to be produced at full speed
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

According to The Times of London, we've been had. The paper quotes from the minutes of a meeting of top British officials in mid-2002 that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

British officials, the CNN report goes on to say, "have not disputed the authenticity of the memo published by The Times." And George Bush, we're told by his press secretary, hasn't read it.

But we're not sure -- and we may never be sure -- what's right or what's wrong, what's true or what's false about a story as damaging as this in a newspaper as reputable as this.

And this is not our only problem in the land of "a free press" where news is concerned.

I suppose we can blame it all on Gutenberg. Before the invention of the printing press, every word was precious. In those days they printed every word by hand. Slowly. It wasn't a case of owning "rare books." The fact is that all books were rare. To be worthy of publication, a book had to say something worth saying.

Since the invention of radio and television, talk is not precious, it is simply necessary. Otherwise, how shall we ever satisfy the insatiable appetite of the yawning monsters of the airwaves that consume ideas and publications 24 hours a day. "News" is updated hourly. Yesterday's stories are written in air and disappear at the first hint of another one, however shallow its import. Day after day, the Internet swallows all of them into a large black hole. Relentlessly.

Clearly, talk in this day and age is a commodity to be produced at full speed. The point now is to keep the pages full, the bulletins coming, the news "fresh."

Enter Dan Rather and the rush to judgment about the Bush service records scandal. Enter Newsweek and the questionable reporting of a Guantanamo-Koran scandal that incited popular uprisings in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Enter Kenneth Tomlinson, chairperson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and his tallying of PBS stories labeled liberal or conservative. The purpose, he says, is to "eliminate bias from the public airwaves." But the effect is obvious: It isn't what we should hear that we will hear, it's what they want us to hear that we'll get. No matter what may need to be exposed to the American public, the pressure will be to ignore it for the sake of the political sensitivities of the people who don't want it said.

Instead of "news" we get what might be news. Instead of depth we get "political balance."

So, while all of this is going on -- news one day, gone the next -- notice the decreasing coverage of the-war-that-wasn't in Iraq and its move to the back pages. Notice the lack of reporting on the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan right under the watch of American troops. Notice that gone are the pictures of toppling statues. Gone the parades of great tanks rumbling through Iraq. After all, there's nothing much new to say here. We think we won and that is surely more than enough to report.

Small bulletins record the fact that Iraqis go on being killed daily, of course, and sometimes, buried in the center of the story, there's a hint of American dead and wounded, as well. But not much and not regularly. More than 1,600 U.S. soldiers are dead now, they say, but who knows exactly how many thousands of wounded and emotionally traumatized? Where and when the last 75 died since we saw the last details of war dead is anybody's guess.

How quickly we forget. How quickly we move on to more "current," more exciting, less troubling "news."

You can find out how many U.S. military are dead, of course, but you'll have to be prepared to do a bit of research on it.

You won't be able to find out how many Iraqis have been killed, however. They simply don't count them. Dead Iraqis -- women, children and unarmed men -- do not impinge on our sense of morality at all in this most moral of governments -- though they do tell us that we are killing "hundreds of insurgents" as we go.

No, the only thing we know about the Iraqis is that they've been "liberated." Forget the raging tears on the faces of the survivors. Forget the street demonstrations. Forget the escalating numbers of attacks on American convoys, and forget the streaming numbers of insurgents who refuse to give Iraq over either to American democracy, American oil companies or American military bases. "Liberated" or not.

But while we're distracted with the cacophony of trivia and rumor and spin and "balance" the airwaves spew out daily, the historians are watching carefully what may well become the debacle of U.S. history in the 21st century.

Historians will keep their eyes on the story out of England that a high British diplomat was told in Washington in 2002 that George Bush intended to attack Iraq under the guise of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that no connection between the government of Iraq and the fall of the Twin Towers could be established. They will speculate why we invaded a country that said it did not have WMD but do nothing about North Korea, a country that has announced to the world that it has them and intends to keep them to defend themselves against the aggression of the United States of America.

Then, you have to wonder whether children some day in the future will be asking their parents and grandparents: "Where were you when all of this was going on? What were you doing about it? What did you vote for and why?"

It might behoove us all to get our answers ready. Someday they may be front page news. If not, you can bet they will at least be the stuff of high school history tests around the world.

From where I stand, it seems that the information age has, indeed, become the best cover for non-information that the world has ever known.

The only question is when will Americans figure it out? And do they care?

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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