Essay: In Other News

May 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt wonders what else was going on while we were watching the war in Iraq.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Meanwhile, in other news, Dr. Atkins dies at age 72, after designing a diet to improve people’s lives. And a consortium of scientists announces that they have completed 99.99 percent of the human genetic code– biological cartography.

For less positive news of the body, behold SARS out of the Asian blue, the deadly infectious disease that’s spreading west.

Or if it’s political news that stirs your drink: Democrats halt President Bush’s nominees for the federal court.

Or judicial news: The Supreme Court rules that the symbolic act of burning a cross can be treated as a crime.

Or news on the links: The masters is protested because of the all-male membership of the Augusta National Golf Club.

Or news of the diamonds: The baseball season begins.

And so does spring. April showers bring May flowers. Read all about it.

What I am doing of course is reporting some of the stories that broke while America was at war in Iraq. This is not to suggest that any of these events were of equal or greater moment than the Iraqi war, but only to remind oneself that the news is selective and frequently parochial.

For us Americans, nothing could be more important than Americans at war. For the Ivory Coast, which has been at war for the past seven months, Iraq produces barely a blip. And indeed, the mid-April maneuverings for peace in that West African country count for more than any event in the Middle East.

Parochialism in newspapers and magazines drives the common practice that a great number of people have to die in another country to make the story newsworthy, as compared with relatively minor incidents in Des Moines or Fargo. Objects in the rearview mirror of national interest may appear larger than they are. So enters the question of significance– historical, monumental, slippery.

In Jane Austen’s novels one will not find mention of the Napoleonic wars, merely Emma arranging this and Elizabeth fretting about that. Which was of greater importance, Jane Austen’s novels or Napoleon’s conquests and defeats? Which was of greater significance in World War II, World War II or the widespread use of penicillin?

Or to make matters murkier add Anne Frank’s diary, which document of human love could not have existed without human hate. Who matters more to the world after World War II, Anne Frank or Hitler? One may be tempted to claim that war is short and art is long, but there is no way to prove this.

To pin the question of significance on the emotions, on the elevated spirit, is merely to make one kind of choice.

Twenty years ago, in an early essay on the NewsHour, I posed the question “what matters most?” in a piece about journalistic priorities. At the time, the choices were among Lebanon, which was the war of that moment; Sarajevo, then simply the site of the winter Olympics; and the spirit elevating the ice dancers, Torvil and Dean.

Today, few may remember Torvil and Dean. But those who do recall a moment when they caught a glimpse of human sublimity, as opposed to, say, a war.

But while we’re at it, what matters most in a war– victory or courage or the dying young? Sometimes one wonders what constitutes news at all.

REPORTER: 16-year-old Momburu Suguri walks past the church every day on his way to look for food. Inside, the remains of his family.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Reporting in places such as Rwanda, Beirut, Cambodia, Sudan, and Northern Ireland over the years, one sometimes catches sight of a child at play in the rubble; a woman quietly reading; an old man feeding a baby; a soldier singing.

Is that the story there, the essential, most-mattering news that slips through the cracks of the firearms: The story of a courtship, a wedding, a birth.

During Iraq, two grandchildren were born in my family. That’s the news to me.

Meanwhile in other news, life attempts to discover itself, to arrange and prioritize itself– in repose, at arms. We flounder in stories. We are stories. We tell one another the stories of ourselves until we get it right. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.