The channel surfer blues

Allan Fotheringham August 1 1994

The channel surfer blues

Allan Fotheringham August 1 1994

The channel surfer blues


The major problem with the information industry, of which I am an employee, is that it does not really help those who are helpless consumers of information. The nonsense of the vaunted information highway, that would deliver 500 channels into our living-rooms and produce department store shopping, not to mention Chinese food to the doorstep, is here before us.

The reason it is nonsense is that we already have more information than we actually want. The major example is Haiti. Most Canadians, not to mention Americans, could not locate it on a map if given a pointer and a large crayon.

It contains fewer people than New York City and yet rates huge headlines in all the best newsmagazines and your favorite morning newspaper. In reality, it is a piffle, no threat to world security, of no consequence to the average inhabitant of Omaha or Moose Jaw, and yet it makes it onto every morning’s 8 a.m. newscast.

Why? Because modem technology, and TV and satellite transmission make it possible. Because technology can make it possible, trivial news masquerades as importance.

Haiti has no relevance to the world order. It is about as important as Yellowknife. But The New York Times—and therefore The Globe and Mail—puts Haiti on the front page. It is a joke.

When the Korean War dragged on, trench by trench, nothing really happening but always reported, the late and great Hal Straight, managing editor of The Vancouver Sun, gave an order to his deskmen. Run the same Korean War story, on the front page, three days in a row and wait to see if anyone noticed. Two (2) people phoned in. The same would happen with Haiti today. Trust me. Marshall McLuhan, one of the three Canadians who could be called genius (the two others available by a self-addressed envelope) accurately predicted that we were evolving into a global village.

He was right, of course, as proved by Peter Arnett, sheltering under a table in downtown Baghdad and describing on CNN George Bush’s attempt to get re-elected. CNN has spooked the established networks—which is

why fading Time magazine, in one of its few recent bright ideas, made Ted Turner, author of CNN, its 1991 Man of the Year.

(What’s the difference between Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle and Jane Fonda? Jane has been to Vietnam. I digress.)

Thanks to Peter Arnett, now whenever there is yet another world crisis the nervous establishment networks dispatch their anchormen immediately to the hotspot, Peter Jennings in a safari suit, Dan Rather trying to disguise his nervousness, Tom Brokaw in his Midwest twang never really fitting in on the world stage.

Our current example of sad information overkill is Rwanda. Now that we can see, live in color, millions of innocent and ignorant people being chopped up and trampled to death, the mind goes numb. Then satiated. Then bored. Ho hum. Somalia yesterday. Rwanda today. Let’s turn to the World Cup. Where’s the disaster tomorrow?

McLuhan’s genius insight produces—as he probably knew—a First World population inured to the pain of others. We watch the numbing pictures on the tube and wait for the sports scores. The mind can absorb only so much, the conscience can take only so many hits. How about them Blue Jays anyway?

When the history books are written, the man credited with the responsibility for the death of communism and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall will be one of two figures. Either Ronald Reagan, for insisting on an arms race that he figured, accurately as it turned out, would bankrupt the Soviet Union and the bad guys would blink first.

Or Pope John Paul II, who on returning to his native Poland on his first visit purposely supported Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement and thereby encouraged the watching Soviet principalities that you could indeed beat city hall.

The real thing that brought down the Communist empire, if truth be known, was the proliferation of the unstoppable TV satellite dish (hello there, Keith Spicer) and the fax machine, which made Warsaw Pact inmates totally aware of what lay outside their frozen existence. Once you’ve experienced Oprah Winfrey, how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm?

The television phenomenon that allows peasants in Thailand to watch O. J. Simpson chased down the freeway in a tableau that the Keystone Kops could not have invented, also dopes us with tragedy. One year it is Ethiopia. The next it is Chad, or Somalia, or Bosnia, or Rwanda or Burundi or


Constant exposure to the tragedy of others does not

make us more stricken,

more grieving, more dumbstruck. Thanks to live television, it makes us accept the worst, knowing that next week there will be more.

Peter Arnett, we see, is now in Haiti, retailing more horror stories to make the evening news to follow up on George Bush burying alive untold thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the mother of all slaughters.

Information overload, it is called. A survey taken 20 years ago asked North American television viewers how many TV channels they felt comfortable with, how many they required. The answer came out to seven. What ho, we are in 1994, the age of the star wars and a recent survey divined that most viewers feel—world scoop!—that about seven channels is all they can, or want to, absorb.

Those of us in the industry of information are killing our consumers with overload. Saturation. Brain dead. What is wanted is quality, not quantity. Switch that channel.