Hot Air: Overload

I like to think I started becoming a citizen of the world in 1967. By that I mean that year, at the age of eleven I found myself entranced by the goings on outside of my home and the block where I played with my friends. I began reading the Chicago Sun-Times every day and the Sun-Times and the Chicago American on Sundays. Both were Democratic newspapers. My parents wouldn’t think of letting the Tribune into our house. That paper was for the bankers and lawyers and other swells of suburban Oak Park, just across North Avenue from us but in truth about six million miles distant in every other way.

I also began paying attention to the nightly news. In those days, the networks ran a world news report each weekday at 6 or so. The local news came on at 10 o’clock. The names I’d caught out of the corner of my ear in years previous — Mayor Daley, R. Sargent Shriver, Nguyên Kao Ky, and Charles DeGaulle — became fully realized three-dimensional figures to me, as opposed to simply words I’d hear issuing from the mouths of Huntley & Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, or, closer to home, Channel 7’s Fahey Flynn.

It’s possible for me to even pinpoint the date I became a news junkie. Or, more accurately, the month. It would be January. Within a span of eleven days that month, three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — died in a flash launchpad fire as they sat in their Apollo 1 capsule and rehearsed for their scheduled liftoff in February, and McCormick Place, the largest convention hall in the world at the time — a trivial datum the city crowed about ad nauseum — was consumed by a spectacular fire and essentially groaned, twisted and crumbled to the ground, creating a horrible eyesore on Chicago’s lakefront.

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Being eleven years old, I had begun to view astronauts not only as mystical, fantastical hero cowboys, but as human beings brave enough to climb on top of a several-hundred-feet-tall can of explosive fuel and be launched into the vacuum of space. I’d been especially taken by Gus Grissom, who, it was well-publicized, was a short man, barely qualified by height to be an astronaut. For some reason I though it was the coolest thing in the world that such a little guy could move so surely and freely among giants. Also being the age I was, I bought into the City of Chicago’s incessant boasting about the largest this, the biggest that, or the busiest whatever. There were Buckingham Fountain, O’Hare airport, the Dan Ryan Expressway, McCormick Place, and so many more. The fact that I lived in a city that contained so many superlative things made me feel…, well, bigger.

The deaths of the astronauts and the destruction of McCormick Place got me into what would become a nearly life-long habit of devouring all the news I could find. I gobbled up everything about the Apollo tragedy. I read about McCormick Place and studied newspaper pictures of the collapsed hulk every time a new one came out. I was baffled that such seemingly eternal institutions (to my young mind) could disappear in the snap of a finger.

From there, I became a constant consumer of news about Vietnam, civil rights, the Cubs (who, that year, had awakened from a dreadful two-decade slumber), and elections of any and all sorts. My newfound passion for news spiked the next year when the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive, and the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo all took place in January and, in succeeding months, Lyndon Johnson quit the race for president, and first King and then Kennedy were killed. There were riots, trips around the Moon, sit-ins and campus takeovers, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their black-gloved fists at the Mexico City Olympics, the French taking to the streets, jetliners being hijacked, and even the premier of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in and the ascendance of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to keep me glued to the papers and the TV news.

And so things remained for the next 30 or so years, during which tons of things happened in my city, in my nation, and in my world, things I had to keep abreast of, things that drew me in and kept me riveted. Reagan getting shot. Iran-Contra. Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. The fall of the Soviet Union. The Gulf War. Oklahoma City. The space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. And then, the mother of all news — 9/11.

But by September 2001 I had started to break away from my heretofore insatiable hunger for news. Some time around the the mid-’90s, I came to the conclusion that watching TV news made me more nervous than informed. Everything and everybody, it seemed, was out to get me. Babies by the thousands were being kidnapped and sacrificed in satanic rituals. Just thinking about sex could infect me with the AIDS virus. A mob of crack addicts milled around my house, waiting for the first chance to get in, steal everything, and kill me for the lark of it. North Koreans wanted me dead. Iranians wanted me dead. Iraqis wanted me dead. Bacteria on my dish sponge wanted me dead. Unfailingly, I felt edgy to the point of distraction after every TV news broadcast.

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Be Afraid. Be Very, Very Afraid.

So I simply decided to forego TV news. Simple as that. While I was at it, I got rid of my TV as well. Well, not actually. I just gave up cable and used my ridiculously bulky TV set solely for videotapes and then DVDs. Truth: I felt better immediately.

I was in no way less informed. I kept up with every event and development through the newspapers and online. Reading about the happenings of the world is far less stressful than being constantly confronted with lurid pix of every bombing, every mad rapist/murderer, every molecule of bad cholesterol out to eliminate me.

As Marshall McLuhan famously remarked, “The medium is the message.” And the TV medium works best when it excites the senses, when it scares you. The message of TV has always been, Be terrified. The more frightened you are, the more likely you’ll tune in at 10 to see what’s next.

That was then. Now, we get our news almost exclusively online. And during these terrifying pandemic days, pretty much all the news is COVID-19. People are dying. It’s getting worse by the day. This rock star has the disease. That actor has died from it. The Rock urges us to wash our hands. Basketball stars are having trouble staying in shape with their season on hold. Churchgoers say the blood of Jesus will protect them from the virus.

All COVID-19, all the time.

Now, the other shoe is dropping. I have quit the news, period. COVID-19 is a clear and present danger. It could kill me. I accept that and have agreed to follow all social distancing and disinfection rules. The greatest medical experts in the world are just now coming to some understanding of what this thing is, why it kills some and not others, how it jumps from person to person, yet there is still so much to learn. So much that is a mystery even to people who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of viruses and public health.

I needn’t keep up with every incremental advance in the total knowledge pool. Lots of so-called advances are merely guesses, stabs in the dark. Lots are the speculations of people who have no business doing the speculating. At some point in the as yet unseen future, I’ll be happy to read about what the world’s scientists know about this virus.

Now, no.

I’m out, and feeling better about it already.

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