NPR News and Information Format, Open Letter

Dear Ms. Siefert-Rose (Manager WUNC, Chapel Hill, NC),

I'm dismayed by WUNC's adoption of a news-and-information format.

The proliferation of news and information obstructs clarity, imposing an ersatz obligation to "keep up," to stay busy, to focus on anything other than our immediate environment, to overlook our lives as we actually live them here and now. We are becoming a nation of abstracted cell-phone babblers, scarcely distinguishable from sidewalk psychotics spouting "word salad."

Not long ago, "keeping up with the Joneses" was a common criticism of people pursuing style and fashion. Although nuggets of truth lie buried in any haystack, "news" is -- if not the ultimate stylization -- a form of communicational flotsam that's "out-of-style" within three "news cycles." Currently, a News and Observer billboard on 15-501 proclaims:  "Life changes. Keep up."

Information culture smacks of pushers selling junkies their next fix. Information culture propagates the delusion that addicts only need "one more fix and finally they'll see things clearly." We are all tempted to believe that "another dose of the problem results in solution."

Here's what I see...

"The News" reports on the lives of distant strangers. We pretend that "The News" shrinks our world, when in fact it thrusts us into the unmanageable immensity of it. What impact do we really have on Hutu/Tutsi genocide, globalization, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fait accompli of big oil pumping every available drop, if not today, tomorrow? I do not advocate ignorance of these issues, nor do I say we are helpless. However, I also argue that global health is optimized by centering our lives in the Eternal Now, avoiding the temptation to dissipate energy in ineffectual broad-mindedness.

Last week, my eight-year old daughter, Maria -- just now awakening to the larger world around her -- was listening to Morning Edition's recitation of daily horror. Suddenly, she looked up and said "Daddy, it doesn't sound as if these people care about what they're saying."

We strike mock poses of "objectivity" and, paradoxically, persuade ourselves there's nothing to be done but "monitor the situation," as if monitoring The News were the decisive moral obligation of the Modern Era.

Mere monitoring becomes an excuse for -- at times even a cause of -- inaction, particularly at the local level where we could, if not constantly distracted by "The World," influence the quality of neighborly life and community. By returning our primary focus to the place where we live, we could embody the vitality of Tuscan hill towns, Irish hamlets, Spanish pueblos and Greek villages. From integral local centers we could propagate the actual embodiment of peace rather than conceiving peace so abstractly that we're no longer present to the world around us, but instead are co-opted by the "The Big Picture," thus salting the immediate ground in which peace might root.

The information glut "drives us to distraction," a term formerly reserved for the near reaches of lunacy. "The News" validates voyeurism. We are all peeping Toms. We are a global village of gossips. 

The promise of "more important things taking place elsewhere" makes us ignore our own lives.

By pretending to compass The World, "The News" hobbles our involvement with local community and family, making us think "we must do something" about "The Planet." Lamentably, global problems -- routinely exacerbated (and sometimes caused) by global limelight -- are so great, so intractable and so distant, that, to make any headway, we must first abdicate personal power to government agencies operating "on our behalf." As a consequence, self-government weakens while "imposed government" swells to a Jeffersonian nightmare.

It is tragic that "the news" draws our attention away from the immediate physical, botanical, zoological and social environments. The weight of modernity compels us to "tune in" to the informational angst of "keeping up." Advertisements boast: "24/7 News!" If Dante were alive, he'd devise a new circle of Hell --- perhaps the innermost --- to accommodate the 24/7 set.

The constant crush of information has become a form of debris, of litter --- a sort of ceaseless leaf-fall, as if we lived in the autumn of the world and must tidy up before the long winter ahead. When at last today's debris has been gathered in, there's nothing to do with the mess but stand there, stupefied, our souls burdened with crippling anxiety.

Until the chimera of today's news cycle gives way to tomorrow's, we use the oppressive information flow to play variants of "trivial pursuit." We engage in the yawning cynicism of "Wait! Wait! Don't tell me." At social gatherings we exchange "up-to-date" news and information, blithely unaware that most information is as meaningless as yellowing heaps of "yesterday's papers." 

We are diligent cyber-serfs, hands full of informational waste, our minds irremediably contaminated by the panoramic view of news cycle trash.

Earlier this morning, my daughter -- who lives without television -- expressed astonishment at a channel-surfing parent muttering "Where's the Learning Channel?" In reply, eight year old Maria wanted to know "Why didn't he just pick up a book?"

We don't pick up books because information technology "fills" our time with the illusion of News. ("The News" is information. "The Olds" is philosophy. Information breeds impertinence. Philosophy breeds rootedness and wisdom. Well-considered principles trump information. Lacking principles, we become Narcissus fixated by "the global information well.")

In the 19th century, "The News" was made possible by the invention of telegraph. With the help of Morse code, humankind finally compressed the time/space continuum. At last we transcended "real time" communication. Neighborly strolls, horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships gave way to the speed of light. Humankind broke free of every Aristotelian unity. 

Most moderns experience stress as a physical pressure, an incubus sitting astride the sternum. Typically, stress is attributable to the compression of news - the telescoping of time and space beyond normal bounds. Unable to decompress the news -- unable to appropriate The News as a reality or to dispose of it in any meaningful way - we live in the oppression of perpetual compression. 

A few years ago, a billboard was erected along the D.C. - N.Y.C. corridor: "It is the fate of humankind to outwit itself." 
We do not need more wit, more information, data and facts. We need more family, friends, children, art, music, gardens and fields. 

We need the settled-ness of wisdom. We need meditative centeredness. We need contemplative calm.

We need to decompress.

Or better yet, we need to avoid compression at the outset.

Twenty five hundred years ago, Lao Tzu cautioned: "If you would be truly wise, dull your brilliance." 

Like our medieval forebears, we would wisely forego the informational feast in favor of purgative fasts. We need -- at least for lengthy intervals -- to foreswear The News, to turn off the television and, increasingly, the radio. 

Just as expanding consumption is untenable in biospheric terms, so the expanding consumption of news and information is untenable in human terms. "Data smog" pre-empts our lives, making us servo-mechanisms of information technology. As John Kenneth Galbraith noted several decades ago: "We are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the machine we have created to serve us."

Tragically, we've made "peace" with the relentless acceleration of techno-culture. Swept away by acquisitive hubbub, we are the greediest people on earth. At times, we suspect the truth lies elsewhere. Lamentably, the information economy does not reward truth: it rewards those who chase the receding horizon of "progress." Mock meritocracy embraces those
who look for gold at rainbow's end.

Ultimately, our metastasizing "wants" have made us wanton. We are left holding a bag of panic, desperate to believe our many consolation prizes add up to something. "Maybe, just maybe, s/he who dies with the most toys does win."

"Where your heart is, there also your treasure will be."

Is our heart primarily in politics? Or is our heart at home among family and friends, playing with kids, mouthing silly variations of Mother Goose?

WUNC's classical music format was welcome respite from the ubiquitous welter of information. Regular sorties into the Baroque, the Medieval and the Gregorian released us from the claustrophobia that Chesterton qualified as "the ultimate narrowness of mere modernity." 

In Pascal's view, "Most problems arise from humankind's inability to sit still in a room." More than news -- even more than 24/7 classical music -- we need stillness. We need entrée to the "still point of the turning world." Without this stillness, news and information are the flotsam and jetsam of a sinking ship.

The modern world is full of noise, most of it self-chosen. Get in the car - flick on the radio. Get home - turn on the tube. We have become more companionable with noise than with one another. The world is jammed with "static" because we prefer it to peace.

Ironically, WUNC's embrace of news and information makes it easier to turn off the radio, to grapple with stillness in hopes of hearing "the small voice" that Samuel -- at long last -- heard in the enveloping silence.

Einstein believed that "Imagination is more important than knowledge." To the extent that WUNC's musical offerings fed the imagination, the station was a faithful ally of truth. Paradoxically, WUNC's new-found commitment to "information radio" exacerbates the needless angst of modernity while capping the springs of creativity and wisdom.

Alan Archibald


"You are fed up with words and I don't blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes.  I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes.  This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean.  It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it.  And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make meaning be there again by magic..." 
                                                                                                                                                                                              Thomas Merton

"(Democracy) was dependent on the existence of virtue among the people. It was such virtue that they expected to resolve the tension between private interest and public good." 
                                                                                "Habits of the Heart," Robert Bellah, University of California, Berkeley

"Do not depend on the hope of results.  When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real.  In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything." Thomas Merton