Hypernews and the life of faith

When a life-or-death crisis landed Paul Weyrich in the hospital, the conservative patriarch found himself plugged in medically, but unplugged from newspapers, talk radio and the Internet.

There was a television in his room, but he didn't watch in July. It didn't matter. The same mediastorm was raging when he left the hospital as when he went in. The buzz was all Chandra Levy, all the time. When the medical staff heard he was politically connected, people started asking him for gossip.

"Sex sells," admitted Weyrich, in a news commentary (www.FreeCongress.org). "But what does that say about us as a people that we would contribute to these ratings? Why do we get wrapped up in this on-going soap opera?" And what does it say about the state of cultural affairs that so many voters question whether they can judge Rep. Gary Condit?

That's life. That's our culture. Hurricane Chandra may have weakened, but it won't take much to revive it. Rest easy, consumers, it won't be long before another blast of what media scholar Quentin Schultze calls "hypernews" reaches our screens and rocks our souls.

"Viewers anticipate the plot. We take sides, cheer for our heroes and hope for the best. ... It is real-life drama in actual time," according to the Calvin College professor. "Hypernews is like a global extension of the human nervous system, putting our emotions on alert and immersing our minds in a chaotic blitz of anticipation. ...

"Hypernews is a technological triumph, but a spiritual roadblock."

Biblically speaking, time is crucial, he noted. There seems to be so little time to ponder what is happening in the world, let alone to pray about it. There 's no time to think about news events, but "only to feel them."

Get this -- Schultze wrote those words a decade ago, in reaction to the Persian Gulf War and the hearings to confirm Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. This was before OJ, Tonya Harding, Princess Diana's funeral, Monica and Columbine. This was before The Drudge Report, Salon.com and today's satellite news wars. This was long before the Comedy Channel became a news source for millions.

Hypernews is no longer a novelty. It's normal.

Way back in the early 1990s, Schultze was concerned that the manic pace of the news was producingfear and anxiety, as opposed to understanding and hope. He noted that the ancient Psalmist calledbelievers to, "Be still, and know that I am God." This command now seems like a message from another planet.

"All news conveys its own implicit worldview," said Schultze. "Hypernews tends to portray a worldout of control, and in purely human hands. ... If the world is a mere stage, with no eternal screenwriter, we are all in deep trouble."

These days, Schultze is pondering the spiritual implications of life in the treacherous territorybetween information and gossip, between news and entertainment. His next two books will focus on the interaction between Christian faith and mass media and the all-too-hazy concept of ethics in cyberspace, that online zoo in which anonymous anecdotes rule and urban legends keep getting resurrected.

"Whether its rumors or gossip or some off-the-wall opinion piece, it really doesn't seem to matter much. It's all news to somebody. At least, it looks like news. It's in print," he said. "In the digital world, information just explodes and takes on a life of its own. ... We live in an age in which totally unsubstantiated rumors can affect the stock market. Our leaders have to react to this stuff, whether its true or not."

Schultze doesn't think it's time to boycott the news. But gossip is a sin and cynicism is spiritual acid that corrupts hearts and minds. His advice is simple: read the Bible, as well as the newspaper. Delete more email. When faced with hypernews, ponder its impact on others, especially children. Turn off the television, hold hands and pray. Calm down.

The goal, he said, is to "pray for our world as concerned citizens rather than as frenzied viewers. ... Perhaps only the Good News can curb our appetite for hypernews."