07 April 2007

My Name Is FireCat, and I Am an Internet News Whore

I will confess this right up front, before anyone gets any illusions to the contrary. I spent Thursday afternoon glued to my best friend's laptop getting and relaying updates on the weirdness in my neighbourhood while she tended to her son, who had a fever. The intensity with which I followed the story unnerved her.

I wasn't always like this. All the way through college I managed to ferret out the New York Times crossword puzzles without looking at any of the headlines. My whole family was like this when I was growing up. At the dinner table, instead of talking politics and current events like "normal" families, we talked about theology and sex (and often not in that order). Then I met Robin. In the fifteen years I've known him, I have become convinced that Robin has a direct uplink to the Reuters newswire in his cranium. It is virtually impossible to have an intelligent conversation with the man without some sort of base knowledge of world events, and even then he usually leaves me in the dust. (There are two rules at Robin's house: no coffee near the prints (he's a photographer), and don't call during "60 Minutes.")

In order to hold my own over dinner, or at least not feel like an uneducated moron, I started paying attention. The first thing I learned, of course, is that what passes for news in this country does not cut it by the rest of the world's standards. If you want to know what's going on, check the BBC, not NBC. Eventually I spent a stint as his research assistant, surprising him with 150 pages of relevant documents during the first week (I promptly got a raise). Occasionally, I'll still beat him to a source, or send a link to an article he hasn't seen....but not usually. He calls me his border collie, in charge of making sure he has all his research, not to mention keeping track of where he left his glasses, his keys, and occasionally his dog.

But there are times when I feel like a vulture. Thursday was one of them. On 9/11, it was understandable that everyone I knew was glued to their TV, or their ISP, or the radio. But after several days, it started to feel voyeuristic. It started to feel like rubbernecking. And I have a problem with that. When does my need to know what's going on in my surroundings turn into a desire to gawk, to watch the horror show? After 9/11, the Red Cross very neatly solved the problem by calling me in to actually work at ground zero, where not only was there no time and energy left over for watching the news, three-quarters of the time they got it wrong anyway. Not to mention, after 8, 12, or a few times 18 hours at the site, when we finally got back to our rooms, images from ground zero were the last thing we wanted to see.

So where does that leave me?

I teach approximately 85 students during any given semester; most of them are between the ages of 17 and 25, though I've had my share of adult learners too. Two-thirds of these students are one step above either ESL or remedial basic English. One of the first lectures I give is why we must read, and why we must write. This inevitably comes up. One of my students will say, "Yo, Miss." (they all call me Miss, even after they learn my name. I've learned to take it as a badge of honour.) "How come I gotta learn to write? Why I gotta read Fahrenheit 451? I'm gonna be a nurse, not a English teacher." Or a chef, or a phys ed teacher, or fill in the blank. Whatever they pick, it's clearly not "a English teacher."

So I tell them. I tell them about how, maybe, if everyone learned to figure out what they thought, what they really thought, about just one thing, then maybe they could learn how to tell someone else what they really think. And that maybe one day we would stop having to blow each other up to tell people what we think. Or having to cap people just because they're wearing the wrong colours. And they get this.

And then, several weeks later, when we're deep into discussing why books have been banned, why they burn your house down if they find a book in it, and how it came to this point in Ray Bradbury's fictional futuristic society (which is frighteningly accurate; read the "Denham's Dentrifice" scene and think about the last time you got onto your crosstown bus and couldn't find one rider who wasn't wearing an iPod and nodding to his own private beat) and why real news is "dangerous," and I ask them: anybody see the news over the weekend? I'll get some general assents; word gets around, even though nobody watches Ed Murrow anymore, god rest his soul. But the news they know isn't the same news that I know. They know who won the ball game, who got booted off American Idol, what Letterman's Top Ten was. (Okay, I know that too if I can stay up late enough.)

This semester, this conversation came up on a big news weekend. A major celebrity death, and a bunch of car bombs in prominent areas around Baghdad. I asked them, "Okay, how many of you heard that Anna Nicole Smith died over the weekend?" Every hand went up. A lively discussion concerning her more famous attributes ensued for several minutes before I was able to quash it by whistling as if I was hailing a cab. "Now. Anybody know how many people died in Iraq over the weekend?"

Dead silence. A couple of people's faces actually registered: Oh, yeah. Iraq. We still over there? Nobody knew. Nobody could venture even a guess. (In writing this article two months later, I had to do a fair bit of digging. The number of deaths that day was roughly 145-150 civilians--but those are just the reported ones. It does, however, include 45 killed in a suspected insurgent safe house that came as a surprise even to me.)

And they only knew about the one with the biggest tits. Something's seriously wrong with that.

More Sunday Scribblings; more on this post.


Anonymous said...

Good point. I still remember for current events in school we had to clip a newspaper story and I always looked for the smallest one. Things sure have changed. I can be a news junkie too, but I've been in rehab a few times.

thefirecat said...

I never ever remembered to do that assignment, because of course when I was growing up, the newspaper was for three things: the crossword, the funnies, and smothering poison ivy. In that order.

thefirecat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gautami tripathy said...

I searched the newspapwer for funny stories and wrote about those.

Nowadays kids don't even bother to open the newspaper.

Papa's little girl

megan said...

Good post. Thanks. I've been an English teacher & I've tutored ESL students. What you're doing is making a difference. If one person each semester "gets" what you're talking about (come to your own thoughts by learning about the thoughts of others), you won. In a strange way, I think, the fact that you don't always know who you reached frees you to just keep doing it.

If you deepen anyone's vision beyond the "entertaining" news, that's pure gold.

sundaycynce said...

Wonderful point you make with your students that if we could all communicate in language, maybe we could learn to do it without bombs!! I, also an English teacher, agree with all that Megan said too. But it is desperately sad that more people listen to and can repeat back the enterainment "news" than anything that is truly worth knowing.
Excellent take on this post.

Anonymous said...

Great post! You have really begun to make an impact on some people -- slowly, slowly. Just the fact that they are learning to see the importance of reading and writing... Well done!

jenica said...

great post! i'm so grateful to have the BBC and NPR!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I was thinking about this today...wondering what America's reactions would have been to the war if the news had been allowed to cover everything properly instead of being sensored (whether by media moguls, politicians or just plain ol' ratings). Do you remember the night of Shock and Awe? I remember watching the events unfold on tv and thinking, this looks like a computer game. It even had the title of a computer game. Except in a computer game there would be bodies. That wasn't shown on American television. Bombed out buildings and bodies were shown on tvs across the globe but not on the televisions in the country that was dropping those bombs. How wrong was that?!
Maybe this change in attitude over the war will have people questionining news censorship...? I hope so.
Anyway, I applaud you for posing these questions to your students. They DO need to find their information outside of Entertainment Tonight and MTV!