From Here to Eternity

There is undoubtedly a need for an artificial heart.
—Lead editorial
The New York Times, July 4, 2001

Watch carefully these days, and you'll see journalism's future. On July 4, while much of the nation was at hokey parades looking fondly backward, The New York Times was looking forward, longingly. At the top left of the front page, way above the fold, was a story about the Bush Administration's deliberations over stem-cell research. The piece delivered not just news, but a tough message for the Bushies, tucked unmistakably in the folds of this sentence: "With Mr. Bush's approval ratings in the polls dropping, in part because the public views the president as too conservative, the stem-cell decision has taken on greater significance."

Heads up, No. 43: Kill the research, and kiss your second term goodbye.

Right next to this story, also above the fold, was another story from the medical frontier. It had one of those theatrical headlines that The Times reserves for the grandest march-of-history stories: "Self-Contained Mechanical Heart Throbs for First Time in a Human." In case you missed the significance of this event, the Times editorial page made it official: Civilization doesn't just want or hope for or dream about artificial hearts, it needs them, undoubtedly.

The Cold War is won. The nation is prospering. Aging boomers are running the media. And only one big question remains: Can We Live Forever? It's on television. It's all over talk radio. It's in the newspapers, in some fashion, every single day. It's the beat of the future and, increasingly, the only story with any juice.

In the 1930s, the canniest journalists saw that Hitler was the coming thing, and got on the story early. Today, the enemy to watch is much scarier. It's the ultimate dictator himself, death. And 50-ish media people are finally recognizing the scope of his evil designs. He doesn't just want the parents and the grandparents, the old people. He wants everyone. And he will stop at nothing to destroy our way of life.

Smart journalists are already on their way to the front, where the forces of good are mustering. Today's Allies are not England and France but the AbioCor Implantable Replaceable Heart, Geron Corp., and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Just as the Greatest Generation gave its all to defeat the Nazis, the not-so-great generation now running the world will give its all to smash death before he robs us of our freedom and fun. For decades to come, any important development from this war will be guaranteed huge play. Smashing victory stories will get the royal treatment.

And life-lengthening medical advances are only half of the story. The other half is the burgeoning efforts to outlaw certain careless individuals' dangerous behavior that could shorten the lives of everyone else. The July 6 issue of USA Today brought news not just of stem cells and artificial hearts, but also of the latest rage among employers and municipalities: banning smoking out-of-doors. John Kirkwood, CEO of the American Lung Association, told the paper, "It's part of a growing trend that addresses the whole problem of smoking."

The trend goes far beyond smoking. It includes New York state's new ban on handheld cell phone use in cars, a life-shortening activity if ever there was one. Naturally, the New York debate received extensive national coverage: Cell phone dangers rouse the passions of contemporary journalists as civil rights and the Vietnam War roused journalists of old. The same issue of USA Today offered a selection of fervid newspaper commentary from around the country on the New York law. Not everyone supports it, but it's been the talk of the editorial pages, from The Dallas Morning News to The Fresno Bee, from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune.

There's nothing new about wanting to conquer aging and disease, and live forever. But in recent years, as the boomers have become AARP-eligible, the quest has taken on a new ferocity. The media used to lionize war heroes, aviators, astronauts. Today we adore cancer survivors. Would Lance Armstrong be doing all those commercials if he'd merely won the Tour de France? The man's a hero because he beat cancer; the bike stuff is just icing. Geraldine Ferraro recently roared back into the national headlines, not because she's returning to politics or has a new public policy idea. Ferraro has cancer, and she's beating it, and that's the definition of urgent news.

What the War on Poverty was to the 1960s, the war on cancer is to this moment. On July 9, The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, built around the Senator's experience of helping her brother fight blood cancer and her sponsorship of a new bill funding cancer research. "A Tough Texas Senator Is a Crusader Against Cancer," said the headline.

These are the stories that inspire, and we'll be seeing a lot more of them. There's already a booming bull market in journalism about living past 100. Last week, The Boston Globe reported that "truths about aging are changing," thanks to new studies of centenarians. Tom Perls, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told the paper: "Centenarians set the bar higher. It raises our expectations of what we can achieve." Watch for those rising expectations to become a "need."

On July 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed to the future of feature-writing, and perhaps existence itself, with a story that bore the utterly of-our-times headline: "Centenarian Has Cut Back on Some of His Trips, But Still Takes Cadillac Out."

He'd better not be using a cell phone.