Like millions of others, I am transfixed and deeply moved by the appalling images coming out of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina. I've made my donation to the Red Cross online, and may make another one soon.
I'm also grieving my own sinfulness. Sunday night, as I was resting up for the first day of school, I watched several hours of CNN coverage as the storm approached land. I found myself growing excited by the dire predictions I heard and saw on the news. Some particularly unpleasant quality within me had me (at least on Sunday) happily anticipating the images of destruction that the newscasters were more or less promising. Even worse, I do confess that when I woke up Monday morning to find that the hurricane had shifted east and New Orleans had been (apparently) spared the worst of the impact, I was briefly -- but clearly -- disappointed. I felt cheated. If that ain't sin, I don't know what is.
By Tuesday, that disappointment had quickly shifted to deep shame and deeper concern. Making a financial donation made me feel better, as it always does. But I am reminded once again how vulnerable I am to the excitement of the news cycle. From the time I was small, I've been a "news junkie". I will sacrifice sleep to read the newspaper every morning; I watch CNN and MSNBC at home, and visit countless news sites throughout the day online. When in the car, I am usually tuned to NPR on the FM dial or to an AM news station. Sometimes in my office, I listen to the stream of BBC World Service. (I can't find the music I like on the radio anyway.) Of course, I still prefer the newspaper. As Shelby Coffey III ( once a dear friend of mine and the former editor of the LA Times) said, no news stories are as carefully vetted as those that make it into major newspapers. I still trust what I read in the Times more than what I read on CNN.com or any other internet site.
I tell myself that my interest in the news is laudable, even virtuous. I was raised to believe that a good person is a well-informed person; and I rejoice that the number of sources from which I can gather information has increased exponentially in recent years. But sometimes, there's a thin line between the desire to be well-informed and voyeurism. While watching the news can sometimes stir me to compassion (I cried yesterday watching that now-famous interview with the Mobile man whose wife had been swept away), it can also leave me with that same ugly thrill that one experiences when one rubbernecks at an accident. At times, it seems as if the wisest thing to do is simply turn off the television and look away.
Current events interest me, but only to a certain extent — there is nothing new under the sun. What should concern each of us most is that which affects us on a local level, in our own lives. Some national events do this; others do not. But even those that do — such as Sept. 11 — are not generally best processed through TV. The “news” there happened over the course of an hour at most, but the cameras continued to roll and the CNN talking heads babbled on for days. One of my friends who doesn’t own a TV commented that everyone she talked to on Sept. 11 who had watched the events on television was frightened, depressed, shaken and irrational. Those who hadn’t — who had simply heard about it from others — were much more calm, thoughtful, and sober. (I don’t regret having missed the sight of people jumping to their deaths from skyscrapers, and I don’t think any American is the more enlightened and virtuous for having watched it.)
Bold emphasis is mine. I suspect Bethany's more right than not. Did I need to see the awful images of the hurricane's destruction? I'm not sure. Would I still have given the same amount to the Red Cross if I had only read of the horrors left behind by Katrina? I'd like to think so. But I'm not sure.