Thursday, April 18, 2013

Things We Did Not Learn About the Marathon Bombings

Let's recap the things that did not happen on the sorry day that the Boston Marathon was bombed:

Five unexploded bombs were not discovered nearby. No unexploded bombs were discovered nearby.

The government did not shut down cell-phone service as a precaution to prevent more detonations. The cell phone system around Copley Square simply became massively overloaded, so that calls could not get through (but texts, which take much less bandwidth, could).

The police did not arrest anyone or identify any suspects.

Twelve victims did not die.

Neither of the bombs exploded inside the Copley Fairmont Hotel.

The 8-year-old girl in the photo that went around the internet was not killed; the 8-year-old victim was a boy.

And, much as I would like it to be true, the story about marathoners running across the finish line and continuing running to the hospital to donate blood cannot be true. The police closed down the finish-line area (i.e., the crime scene), and directed runners elsewhere. I'm sure some runners did donate blood, but the inspiring version of this story, where they finish the race and don't even break stride, is not true.

All of the above things that did not happen were widely reported and widely repeated, especially on the 24-hour news. If you watched the news for the first 24 hours, you were likely to "learn" at least some of these things that are not true. On the other hand, you would not learn much of anything accurate during the first 24 hours, because no one actually knew anything. The crime scene had not been properly searched yet. There had not been time for investigators to study photos and videos to look for the bomber.

So what did you gain if you watched cable news for the first 24 hours after the terrorist attack? Less than nothing. You "learned" more false information than you were given real information. What 24-hour coverage covers is the 24 hours before anyone knows anything. And watching the news during those 24 hours actually leaves you more ignorant than if you simply waited for the next day's paper.

Forty-eight hours later,  long after there was any such excuse, CNN and AP were trumpeting that a suspect had been arrested, and was on his way to arraignment at Boston's federal courthouse. A few hours later, they had to retract that story. They didn't just report that an arrest was imminent. They reported that the non-existent arrest had already happened.

Cable news obviously does a terrible job supplying information about the real world. But supplying viewers with information is not cable news's real job. The 24-hour news channels, no matter their partisan leanings, exist to insulate viewers from the emotional experience of not knowing. 24-hour news is for people who, like small children or Politico columnists, simply cannot wait.

What cable news offers is not information but protection from feelings of uncertainty. The emphasis is not on discovering the truth, but banishing the discomfort of being uncertain what the truth is. It will fill 24 hours with confidently reported gossip, speculation, and rumor in order to distract a viewer from any truths that remain unknown, and most of all from the truth that the viewer does not know. It is an emotional substitute for knowledge. That any actual information occasionally mixes into the news flow is just an accident of necessity.

The anxiety that cable news addresses, the discomfort with uncertainty, is the opposite of curiosity. Curiosity embraces uncertainty as a necessary first step to more knowledge. Curiosity is driven by the joy of discovery but also by the pleasure of groping toward that discovery, the pleasure of not knowing yet. (When the curious eventually answer a question, they become curious about a new question.) But cable news teaches that not knowing yet is intolerable. Having unanswered questions is intolerable. Not being sure of one's position is unbearable. So it promotes pseudo-knowledge, a set of cliches and talking points and reflexive attitudes that substitute for actually knowing something. That pseudo-knowledge does not help you understand the questions better. It labels questions officially answered, so you can stop thinking about them.

And conspiracy theories, which began to proliferate as soon as the bombings entered public awareness, are simply a more elaborate effort to close off the experience of the real world, to block out any sense of uncertainty and any possibility of surprise. Conspiracy theorists, whether American right-wingers or Egyptian Islamists, began denouncing the bombings as a fraud designed to frame people who share their ideologies because the conspiracy theorists think that the bombings likely were carried out by someone who shares their ideologies. (If a right-winger says that right-wingers are about to be framed, it's because on some level he thinks that right wingers did this. Likewise the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who claimed that it's all a conspiracy to defame Muslims actually thinks the bombers are Muslims.) But more importantly, conspiracy theorists are trying to fend off, well in advance, any piece of evidence that might interfere with their theories. The point of a conspiracy theory is to make the facts fit the theory, not the theory fit the facts, so you'd better get a head start on inconvenient pieces of reality. The point is never to change your mind. An old joke says that "a paranoid is never surprised." That's the point of paranoia: to ward off the discomfort of discovering and learning, the intolerable intellectual adventure of not knowing something, the tormenting possibility of change and growth. Some people will go to any lengths not to learn anything new. For those who need an easier path, there is always CNN.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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