When there was less to people’s news and info lives—a newspaper or two a day, a half-hour network news show, a couple of news magazines a week—there were stories that rose to the top and stayed there, depending on importance. This didn’t mean that second-tier or frivolous stories didn’t get coverage or traction. People always loved celebrities, always loved hearing gossip, and when man bites dog, that’s always news. The down side was a certain provincialism that came with a narrow channel and less worldly attitudes: if millions were suffering in a place nobody heard of, with people unlike us, most readers and viewers might have no idea.
Now we can know anything, though we don’t know everything, or care about everything. This has left news leaders in a delicate position. There are going to be stories that appeal to a journalist sense and a humanist sense, that deserve at least regular mention, if not coverage that might only say, “And in the misery of this place or that war, it’s still happening, with no end in sight.” The dual problem is that people can find and figure that out for themselves, without a multi-billion dollar media enterprise telling them, and those media consumers might just as well pay attention to something else.
Which is why, unlike its predecessors World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, the Iraq War was not the top story every day of its ten years. Which is why the current violence in Iraq is barely covered, a turning away that in part must come from some profound but unspoken embarrassment.
For a few moments a few months ago, Syria was a bright shiny object. Red lines, chemical warfare, threats of military action, etc. After some erratic movement, slight progress is being made. But that progress does not include ending the civil war.
The New York Times, still possibly the world’s greatest news enterprise, has an ongoing section devoted to the Crisis in Syria. The increasing numbers stupefy: 6.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes, more than 2 million of them seeking refuge in other countries. Now we hear about a cluster of polio cases among Syrian children.
We have plenty of our own problems, individually and as a country. Some of those are not small at all. But there is no polio. And the entire population of the state of Tennessee or Indiana has not had to leave their homes behind, dodging mayhem, unsure if they will ever return, or if there will be anything to return to.
We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be exhausted or crushed by the miseries of the world; that’s what keeping track of all the problems all the time would do. So yes, you can argue that it is important to learn from the news today that Paris Hilton has spent $5,000 on Halloween costumes so that she can dress up as Miley Cyrus. But for a change of pace, a regular, maybe daily, reminder that there is still a war in Syria might be of value.