Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The But Seriously Folks Blog

When my mother was a child, a man killed another man in a drunken fight, and then ran and tried to hide on the prairie. Since there aren’t many places to hide on the prairie, the sheriff easily found him the next morning, and ordered him to surrender. The man then reached for something, and the sheriff shot him dead. What the man had been reaching for, apparently, was a handkerchief. He had no weapon.

I recount this story stripped of all detail, turning into something elemental and universal, or perhaps the Cliff’s Notes version.

When my mother told it, however, it was rich with detail, and polished to a high gleam through many years of remembering, and re-telling. The sheriff had a name (Torgerson, or something like that), and was well-regarded by the people in the country. The man he shot had a history of trouble, as did the man he killed. They were hapless ne’er-do-wells, reduced to drinking with each other, because nobody else would drink with them. They were famous for their fights, and every family in the area, snug in their winter-blasted houses, knew that one day, disaster would come to them. There was nothing to be done. After a long series of embarrassments, they had separated themselves from the community. They had made their bed, as the saying goes, and would one day die in it.

My mother could even describe the handkerchief, which the sheriff had saved, and would carry with him, and display on occasion. It was both a souvenir and a reminder of the deadly mistake he had made. As I said, the sheriff was well-regarded, and a decent man (according to other stories my mother told about him). He was saddened by what he had done, but not so saddened that he couldn’t get what glory there was lingering in the deed. My mother had seen the handkerchief many times. She even said it smelled faintly of lavender and whisky. The man’s initials had been sewn into a corner, in blue thread, by his poor dead mother.

I often think about how stories spread in those days. People in South Dakota lived a hard life, miles from each other, only seeing each other on Sundays (if they were church-going people), or on the road once a month or so. Perhaps they might run into each other in town, or catch up on what was going on with a merchant, mailman, or bartender. There were dances, several times a year, festivals, socials. That was it. And yet they all knew what was needed to know about each other, to help in a time of crisis.

When telephones came along, those who had telephones shared the line. Owners would work out codes – two longs and a short meant the call was for the Monseruds, say, two shorts and a long was for the Kelgaards. Of course, people eavesdropped. That was a given. But people didn’t need to watch what they said in the country. Talking on the phone was an event, and its ring, in the early days, usually meant bad news: “Your brother’s been thrown by his horse. Better get into town right away.” You WANTED everybody to know your business - within reason.

There’s no way of knowing how much is true of what my mother remembers about that shooting. I have probably embellished on what she told me as well. That’s what happens to stories.

But as I was cruising the blogs the other day, the story popped into my mind, unbidden. Because the blogs are full of stories, not many of them the bloggers’, stories of corruption in high places, of cover-ups, dark deeds, false consciousness, base motives, with strong opinions on all. And the bloggers link to each others’ blogs, so you can read a variation of the angry hundred words you have just read, and then another, with links to offending passages from bloggers who believe the opposite of what they believe.

And suddenly, you’re lost in a world of links and short angry paragraphs, and you forget what everybody was talking about in the first place.

There is much deriding of the Mainstream Media (MSM) in the Blogosphere, and certainly there’s much to be derided – the self-importance, the laziness, the sense that we’re just getting received information, as filtered through overpaid suits.

But what the Blogosphere hates about MSM is what I cynically relish about it: it speaks from above, a rarefied atmosphere of fact-checkers and lawyers, and gleaming steel buildings. Anchormen and reporters are not of us. They are out there in the world of news, deep-voiced men, assertive women with scary hair, cherry-picking the earthshaking tidbits of the day and presenting them to us in a format that is at once both soothing and vaguely alarming.

My trouble with the Blogosphere is that it’s relentlessly alarming without the soothing bits. It’s all sneer and no tongue. And the Blogospheroids are every bit as self-important as Dan Rather ever was. And in the MSM, he was just one guy. In Blog World, there are thousands of Dan Rathers.

Some of them are obsessed with fake reporter Gannon, say, some with the fake Bush letter. But nobody has the resources to see if fake reporter Gannon really was fake, or if the fake Bush letter really was fake. The Blogosphere is full passionate intensity, but lacks the follow-through. MSM has resources to do a follow-through, but just doesn’t care. They’d rather make sure that the death of the pope, the war in Iraq, and the massacre in Minnesota are covered.

Terry Schiavo, however, seems to have brought things to some kind of head. It’s the kind of story MSM loves, full of angry crowds, DC soundbites, spewing pundits, insane spouting on the Hill, blithering experts, and Larger Social Issues.

And in the Blogosphere, it’s brought out unmediated rantings, thoughtful commentary, ignorant spewings, morally-infused rage – a cacophony of voices cancelling each other out. It used to be called white noise. Now the voices make a vast sludge in the gray expanses of the Blog.

And most of these stories are really none of our business. The poor dead man reaching for a handkerchief – that was everybody’s business. Duncan and Brady. Frankie and Johnny. Those stories meant something to the neighborhood, and expanded from there.

It was bad enough when the reporters starting streaming in to ask the sheriff how he felt after shooting an unarmed man. Now we have bloggers weighing in. The handkerchief was planted! They didn’t even HAVE that design in 1930! Did somebody pay off the sheriff to shoot the man? Is the man really dead?

It’s a new media, they say, a new dawn. Well, gee, I’ve heard that before. It seems to me we used to own our own stories, and ride them til they dropped. Now the stories ride us, in circles, never-ending circles. Blinkers on, we gallop ever faster, secure in the illusion that we’re actually going somewhere.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing to add - just wanted to say that that's a great piece of writing.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Instead, I suppose it can be said that we're just waiting for Godot... which would make the circular nature of this nothing new vis a vis the modern era.

8:19 AM  

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