The News: And the End of the News

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
January 25, 2019
The News

January 1987. I sort of remember it. I arrived at National Airport to visit grad schools. A poster for Les Miserables caught my eye on the Metro. I checked in to the Howard Johnson on Virginia Avenue across from The Watergate, ambled to the Kennedy Center and bought the last ticket to that evening’s Les Mis, plus a Washington Post to catch up on the Iran-Contra affair. I didn’t know that HoJo’s history, of scandal fame. Nor the irony of lodging at the site of a famous “by-hook-or-by-crook” while another was on trial.

After reading up on the “affair” on a KC lounge chair, my thoughts went something like this: I get what happened, in general. But I don’t follow The Post’s narrative. It was like reading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) in a French class two years prior. The “dots didn’t connect” because I mistakenly assumed that the story had “dots to be connected.” What was the problem? Me? The story? The journalist? Need one be a French Existentialist to understand the dirty details of the “affair?” Or, did the journalist just weave webs from gleaned quotes, its-and-bits, he-said-she-said, and pseudo-classified gossip in order to cogently meet a front-page deadline? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At least Camus wasn’t pretending to make sense, superficially. Read aloud, The Post’s article would’ve sounded like liquored banter at a 16th Street bar. Oh well. I folded the paper, returned to my youthful romanticism and took in Les Mis.

Youth is wasted on youth. At age 21, covert skullduggery seems romantic, from a lounge chair. Maybe I watched too much James Bond in high school. But it didn’t seem so this time. My frustration with The Post’s “affair” story was a painful growing-up moment, though it wasn’t obvious then. The country’s state of affairs now depressed me. Being “informed” didn’t clear up anything. The world began to make less sense, not more. Until then, I was infected with the ’80’s naïve optimism. Now a fog was lifting. A painful light was straining the eyes of my mind: the battle between good and evil is not a battle between black and white. Dark and light interlock in shades and shadows. But I still had a ways to go before I’d perceive that the dark side – lurking and calculating – is a real and death-dealing personal force, akin to a lion searching for prey. Nor did I yet grasp the greater fact of grace, though it too was at work. Until then, my cartoon assumption of a predominant innocence in most people – in conflict with a few bad guys (out there) – was the false basis of my romanticism. That’s a romanticism we must all overcome in the face of our powerlessness before life’s immanent and imminent tidal waves – and our desperate reliance on grace. Adulthood, truth and holiness are inherently painful – in this life.

At age 21, the romantic road had come to a fork: Cynicism or… what? “There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways” (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, circa 60AD). But there was no road sign saying which was which. Every fork in the road was followed by another fork and no sign. Choice is not clarity. The grace of baptism and the angels are subtle and invisible guides on life’s journey, especially to a young man’s incipient faith. And backtracking (“Go back three spaces”) and setbacks (“Do not pass go – Do not collect $200”) are part of their humbling providence. Moreover, grace and angels speak quietly, very quietly – only to be understood in silence and suffering. But that was not my inclination back in January 1987.

Perhaps I’m not grad school material, I thought. I read The Post’s “affair” story again. No light. Democracy Dies in Darkness. That was the beginning of the end of my interest in news. Then this happened the following fall at UVA. One of my suite mates – a British atheist in pharmacology – laid The Post on his lap after reading a story about I forgot what. He eyed me through his pale, waifish face and snidely commented: “This is a load of bunk. Is this an international paper? It says absolutely nothing.” His sardonicism explained nothing, either. But it disclosed a sensibility about “the news” that I could relate to. I felt vindicated. But, as I soon discovered, his sense of “the news” was typical of socialists, who tend to be sardonic. The following semester, it happened again. A self-professed “neo-Marxist” professor wove together a narrative – via a series of lectures and articles – that The Post and its ideological allies are purveyors of liberal capitalist-class hegemony in the vein of… get ready… conspicuously money-wrought liberals who send their kids to expensive psychotherapists. Well, I never thought of it that way before. That was unforgettable.   Amusing. Stinging. But not convincing. French Existentialism began to figure because nothing in the world figured. Beyond my living room, all seemed absurd.  So then, what’s “the news?”

I occasionally watched TV “news” in the late ‘70s when my budding mind took an interest in current events. I remember the likes of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and later Connie Chung and other talking heads. They had an edge over papers. As Marshall McLuhan entitled his hip little 1967 tour de force: The Medium is the Massage. TV news – like today’s “news feeds” – are more massage than message. The info is an excuse for the massage. Like in Italian operas, ridiculous plots are excuses for good music. Most media content, I’ve come to believe, is just a way to forget our primeval sadness – our fallen condition – while the medium medicates our misery. “For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media). As Pascal would say, it’s a diversion (divertissement) from our boredom (ennui).

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I recall high school and college profs proffering the importance of “being informed.” But I don’t recall anyone asking the deeper question: What is “to be informed?” Nonetheless, I experimented with “being informed.” I spot-read vapid stories in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. My local hometown paper, The Daily Comet – which dad called the The Daily Comic – was an excellent source of info about who got murdered, who got married, who got murdered after they got married, who got married after someone else got murdered, who got married while released on bail, who got a Kiwanis Club award, and what City Council did for drainage. When the New York Times bought The Comet, it ceased to be The Comic. It featured some clearly non-local columnists. So now, juxtaposed against “Alligator Spotted in Ditch” were op-eds about sexual liberation. That’s enough to turn any Cajun into a French Existentialist. As for the Times-Picayune, they ran a story about women getting in touch with their primeval femininity by going into the woods and howling like wolves at a full moon. I was now “informed.”

When I started LSU in ‘83, I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal at the student rate. The Journal paired well with Marlboro Lights and cappuccino in the Student Union. I was getting “up in the world,” so said my ego. I was never so faithful to being “informed” as I was then, thanks to the WSJ. I distinctly recall an op-ed by an Alexander Cockburn, incisively criticizing US foreign policy in Central America. His critique was razor-sharp and stood out in relief – like a hippie in Muskogee – against all else in the Journal.  It haunted my thoughts – in a good way – for a long time. But I’m not sure that’s an experience of “being informed.” In any event, studies got in the way of “being informed” until ’86, when I spent a semester in Geneva. Once again, I took to newspapers, namely Le Monde, Le Figaro and other “l’actualités” – mainly to learn French. So I didn’t care what I read, as long as I could read it. I followed “global” news. I must admit, though, I was partly motivated by the good news and optimism of the pre-Iran-Contra 80s. There were rumors that “It’s morning in America again.” The future of commerce looked bright, so they said. I’d have a stake in the game, so I thought. But providence erodes illusions.

I interned on the Hill when I got back from Geneva. One day, in happenstance, I sat between a famous Senator and a freshman Congressman on a tram to the Capitol Building. It was a stuffy moment. Let’s call the famous senator “Senator Doe.” The Congressman asked me, “Do you know who that is?” I turned to the Senator and, with insipid politeness, answered like a 5th grader in social studies: “That’s Senator Doe.” “So you know who he is?” asked the Congressman. The Senator stiffly proclaimed, like Darth Vader, “He’s a very well informed young man.” That gave me the creeps. I couldn’t wait to get out of there – off that tram and into the bar at Capitol South. But I thought about it: Just because I saw Senator Doe’s face on NBC or in Time, did that mean I was “informed?” What I didn’t tell Senator Doe was that I met a guy in Geneva who worked for him and who, it seemed to me, was stoned most of the time. I supposed public policy was none-the-worse for it. Moreover, the Senator didn’t know me from Adam, but I didn’t say that he was “ill-informed.” So, even before encountering socialists at UVA, the seeds of doubt had been sowed in me about “the news.”

So, here we are in 2019. Well informed. And none-the-better for it. Let’s try an experiment. Silence. Let God do the “in-forming.” “For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength.’ But you were not willing” (Isaiah 30:15).

Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor