Grim News, Any Way You Want It

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So much has been written recently about the shortcomings of journalism, you would imagine that we are living in a virtual vacuum of information about world events. But is that really true?

CNN plays in the background at a NATO summit in May. (Reuters)

This is an especially dyspeptic summer of global mayhem, political vitriol, and business scandals. The media in the many forms it now takes is scrambling to keep track of multiple wars, economic doldrums that seem intractable, and nature's vengeance, which in the United States has taken the form of the worst drought in over fifty years. So much has been written recently about the shortcomings of journalism, you would imagine that we are living in a virtual vacuum of information about these events. But in fact, we are now inundated with material as never before, from every platform, and the challenge is to choose what to read to get a clear sense of the scale of the various crises. Newsweek had a cover piece a few weeks ago called "iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Is Rewiring Our Brains." Well, that seems awfully strong, but it is true that almost wherever we look, as July slips into August, there is a lot of grim news, and we can't avoid the outpouring of troubles that spew forth from screens and print.

Here is some of what has made a particular impression on me:

Among the best pieces recently, I was relieved to read -- and agree -- with Frank Rich's essay in New York magazine asking "Is America Dead? (Um, no)." The cover blurb explains: "If there's one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on, it's that this country has gone to hell. Why America is so obsessed with its own decline?" This is Rich's most interesting piece since he joined the magazine, having moved from the New York Times, and he is right in his appraisal that we seem to be reveling in symptoms of national distress, and tend to do so periodically. "The severity of the economic crisis notwithstanding," Rich writes, "the underpinnings of our discontent are almost uncannily reminiscent of those that marked all our other modern waves of American declinism. . . . In the post-World War II years of American might, it is hard to find a sustained period when America was not fretting about its status in the world and its ongoing or potential decline."

Tom Friedman, whose bestselling book That Used to Be Us, co-written with Michael Mandelbaum (a PublicAffairs author for previous books), is one of those pundits who Rich places in the declinist scrum. He did, however, get it exactly right in a recent column that began: "I can remember bad presidential campaigns in good times and good campaigns in bad times, but it is hard to recall a worse campaign in a worse time. Mitt Romney's campaign has been about nothing and President Obama's has been about Romney. . . . The president is punching so below his weight. It's like watching Tiger Woods playing Putt-Putt."

So stipulate that -- in contrast to the lack of good information that is a theme of media criticism -- we are actually wallowing in streams of news and commentary, ranging from crummy to brilliant. The real problem is that is we are surrounded by stories that are relating genuine problems that in aggregate make this into an era of particularly bad news, reinforced by the fact that we can get it delivered to us 24/7 and in platforms -- social media, for example -- that did not exist a decade ago.

Take the Arab Spring, which has evolved from popular uprisings in favor of democracy -- all of which are still unfolding in unpredictable ways -- into a civil war in Syria, a particularly brutal conflict in a country of strategic importance. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the international system seems too enervated to devise a means of restraining Bashar Al-Assad and his regime. While the news is filled with daily accounts of attacks and counterattacks, this is a conflict that is especially hard to grasp because the opposition remains so fractious and foreign reporters in the country can barely get past the crossfire to make any reasonable judgment other than the tragic loss of civilian lives. Russia's intransigence in support of Al-Assad highlights another of the summer's dreadful narratives: Vladimir Putin's increasingly repressive regime. A succession of laws jammed through the Duma in the early months of Putin's new reign have curbed the Internet, imposed major new obstacles to the work of nongovernmental organizations that monitor human rights, and made public demonstrations into criminal acts with serious consequences.

The financial scandals from London to Wall Street provide another reason for gloomy appraisals. Joe Nocera, whose columns in the New York Times are consistently provocative and persuasive, characterized the Libor scandal as shocking because the manipulation of interest rates at which banks make unsecured loans to each other was done with such glee by bankers and traders: "With all the seedy bank behavior that has been exposed since the financial crisis, it's stunning that there's still dirty laundry left to be aired." It also turns out that HSBC's former chairman (and an ordained Anglican priest), Stephen Green, now Britain's trade minister, wrote a book touting ethical values while the bank allegedly laundered billions of dollars from drug cartels and terrorist organizations. According to Reuters, he "regrets" that there were compliance failings while he was in charge, but a spokesman said they "have nothing to do with his own personal involvement in those activities or anything remotely like it."

A world so awash in troubles is certainly not new, but what characterizes this era more than any other is how the media has expanded to spread the word. We know more than ever about the failings of regulators, the corrosive role of money in politics, and the weakness of international peacemakers. These are not good times on many fronts, but what makes them so palpable and disturbing is that, if we want to delve into them, we can now do so in what turns out often to be excruciating detail.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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