Too Fond of “It”?

“It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” 

That quotation is attributed to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He is said to have made the statement in response to his observation of the battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War. (Brief history lesson; the Union got its ass handed to it at Fredericksburg.)

I assume what Lee meant was that it was, on some dark level, fun to dominate an opponent in that fashion. Or fun to watch it happen, despite its terrible nature.

In a way, I relate to the watching part. I’m talking about news coverage of big events. Yet not just any events. Events that are usually unpredictable on a moment to moment basis, with the potential for negative results. Unlike, say the Super Bowl, which, though covered and disseminated widely is, nonetheless an annual game-the location and date of which is well known to everyone. And even when your team loses, human life has no real potential to be affected by it. In short the Super Bowl isn’t “breaking news”, so to speak. Breaking news is often (though not always) troubling on some level.

Also, big as it may be, the Super Bowl is not covered wall to wall for days on every network. It is covered of course, and the sports networks will devote more time to it than anything else that week, but it doesn’t dominate the news landscape in the way breaking, potentially worrisome news does.

Nationally, these sort of wall-to-wall coverage events have recently included the Boston Marathon Bombing, Sandy Hook, the initial days of the various Arab Spring revolutions. More regionally you get wall-to-wall coverage of hurricanes that are headed for land nearby. “Snowmageddon” a few years ago had the local channels switching to wall-to-wall coverage of the snow. (Though I am not 100% sure why they did that.)

In all of the above cases, I watched at least a few hours of the coverage. Well beyond what was needed to gain a better understanding of the situation. Why did I do this? Why will I (and millions of others) probably do it during the next event/crisis that springs up? I think there are obvious reasons and not so obvious ones:

I want to keep informed. I want to know right away if something changes in the situation. I want to know if any predictions I have made come true.

Compare and contrast my views. I want to hear how close my opinion on the unfolding events is to those who are on television being paid to give their own opinions. (Sometimes it’s fairly close. Where is my check?)  I also want to share things with people I know, to see what they are thinking.

It breaks up the monotony of our day or of life. I suspect humans are often drawn on a subconscious level to anything that is outside of their routine. It’s a primordial longing for excitement, maybe.

Threat assessment and response. I think humans also have a built in switch that gets thrown when it looks like somebody somewhere is battling something, or recently did so. Obviously the closer we are to the situation, the stronger that instinct is. But still even if the hurricane everyone has been watching down south for days has no mathematical chance of hitting Maryland, I feel a need to be tuned in to what people in general are going through, when it comes to something as swift and unpredictable as a hurricane. A small, tribal sense perhaps that I too need to pay attention and be ready.

Sudden solidarity. On a visceral level you feel connected not just to those in trouble, but to those watching it. Though most people that exist may not be watching TV, nonetheless there are millions watching what you are watching. Seeing what you are seeing and thinking what you are thinking. Once more, that is true with the Super Bowl as well, but there is something more urgent, and perhaps at times more comforting when it is focused on the unexpected. For the Super Bowl, in the end, there are only two possible outcomes; the AFC team will win, or the NFC team will win. It all comes down to that. But if, say, New York has a total black out like it did a few years ago, the variables are endless. Why did it happen? How will people respond? How will they fix it? What’s this mean to the rest of the country?

I don’t think I’m alone in this…

None of it means I want people to die so there is something on television. I don’t sit around hoping for a level five hurricane to slam into a state or town. And there are some riveting news items that are in fact not especially bad. (The resignation of Pope Benedict earlier this year, and the conclave to choose his successor, for instance. ) It just means that when these things do happen, something seems to keep a lot of us watching. I am not a news junkie per se, in that I am not always watching the news. And even I get to the point with an unfolding story that has run out of folds for the day. I’m not “glued” to a TV often. Still, I have to go back to the Lee quotation when I think of some of the news events I have watched, and say to myself, “It is well that many breaking news events are so terrible, or else we would grow too fond of them.”

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2 Comments

  1. You’re right on — it’s important to be aware of news for so many reasons. I hate having to defend watching and reading the news to people who claim I’m just getting off on the tragedy or some other BS.

    I’d like to add: when it comes to natural disasters, I like to tune into the coverage on the radio or TV or read a story about it so that I can be better informed and prepared in case something like that happens where I live. I remember being a freshman in college and there being a tornado warning in our area, and everyone freaking out because so many people were so ill-informed. The Weather Channel does this cool feature where they have a guy visit a family in an area often hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. and do an activity to see how well-prepared they are. It’s meant as education for the viewers as well as the family.

    • Good point, about being prepared and knowing what to do, even if it isn’t bearing down on you. Since by then, it’s kind of too late.

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