TV news as a hotline to memory

Yesterday my friend Steven Bragaw posed a terrific question by Twitter.  Thinking it through with other people triggered a lot of memories, then gave me more insight into the problem of American tv “news”.

It was actually a question via retweet of Miz Rosenberg: “What’s the first major news story you can remember living through as a child?”  The retweet included Steve’s answer:

"What's the first major news story you can remember living through as a child?"

Return of the POWs from Vietnam; last moon landing.

Naturally I had to answer this myself.  At first I jotted down a very short reply:

My tweeted reply: "One of the last moon landings."

One of the last moon landings.

But like any deeply rooted memory, pulling on this one tugged forth more details and memories.

I’m not sure which moon landing it was.  Born in 1967, I would have been 5 years old for Apollo 16.  Maybe it was the last mission, Apollo 17, and my parents didn’t break my heart by telling me that that glorious line of human space exploration was ending.

I do remember sitting in the living room with my back to huge, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, my eyes mostly glued to the (to me) vast television set.  I built spaceships with Legos and Tinkertoys corralled (mostly) near the bookselves.  With the Tinkertoys I made a clock or stopwatch in imitation of some important countdown, then twirled the minutes and seconds in my hands.  It’s hard to express now just how exhilarating were the childhood visions of a human future in space, and how bitter have been the subsequent decades.

think I recall images of the American war in Vietnam, and of Nixon, but am not sure (remember, born 1967).  I do recall asking my parents about Vietnam and Watergate, and their offering to tell me more when I grew older.  The many media images of those events might have overwritten my child’s memory, so I can’t be sure.  I do feel a much more powerful emotional charge from the Moon mission(s) than the political stories.

I remember the tv scaring me at other times with the piercing cry of the Emergency Broadcast Service.  Terrified, I turned it into a joke, using the prompt of “please stand by” to get up and literally stand next to the tv.

Reflecting last nighton this odd bit of televised terror, and being of a Gothic disposition, I returned to Twitter to build on the original question with one of my own:

"Here's a better question: what's the scariest news story you remember from childhood?" - my tweet

Here’s a better question: what’s the scariest news story you remember from childhood?

I answered myself very quickly.  It was the Jonestown slaughter.  I was eleven years old, and felt fear in the news for the first time.   I knew nothing of the People’s Temple, so this story came out of nowhere. The initial reports were bad enough for a kid, since these were not military but civilian deaths, including a lot of children.  A preteen boy can accept wartime destruction, especially through mechanisms of play or family history.  The mass murder of children, though, is beyond the pale.

What pushed it over the edge for me was one gory, Gothic detail in the reportage.  Initial reports mentioned dozens, maybe more than one hundred dead.  Then someone discovered a second layer of bodies, weltering beneath the first, and pushing the death toll up closer to 1,000.  Very few moments in horror fiction read or watched since have touched me so deeply.  (This is one argument I use against cretins who wish to censor fiction.  Have they considered the impact of nonfiction? Usually not.)

I had a general fear of total thermonuclear war, that specific aspect of generation X’s identity, but can’t recall a particular news story that engendered it.  Atomic war in movies, news mentions, and that heinous emergency alert sound all combined to yield that too-early sense of impending mortality.  Years later, when I was a teenager, a friend picked up a copy of a CIA-published list of Soviet nuclear targets in the US.  We went through the warhead sites, imagining how armageddon would play out.  Naturally we found the site closest to us, a scant mile away, and started thinking about our last seconds of life.

Moved by these recollections, I copied the questions to Facebook, after Twitter ran dry.  As of now there are around 60 responses.*  Folks of all ages have cited the US space program (especially the Challenger explosion), JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, WWII, local crimes, and more.  Most were from the US, while some cited European and Middle Eastern events.  None were young enough to cite 9-11.

So why discuss this bizarre topics?  The questions are intrinsically interesting, based on responses.  They triggers good personal recollections, so it’s a nice prompt for memoir and autobiography.

In addition, this question-and-answer process sheds light on the deep attachment people have to tv “news”, starting back in the decades when it was actually closer to news (without my sarcastic quotation marks).  For a couple of generations of Americans, the television was the portal to events, a doorway to history as it happened.  That means tv played a key role in the media diet, but also plugged right into the emotional centers of the human brain.

I suspect the past generation of tv pseudo-journalism has build on this connection knowingly, ramping up the fear to plug itself ever more deeply into our psyches.  Fox, CNN, MSNBC want to be the royal road to the amygdala, and will keep searching out these big fear spikes whenever possible.

If this is correct, it helps explain the puffery stories tv “news” programs also run.  Those are the necessary narrative and emotional buffers for the grand fear tales.  They provide narrative scaffolding, a sense of easy comfort from which we spring into terror and history.

But this strategy is not succeeding with the younger generations.  Once we leave the boomers and genXers, the next cohorts turn to digital media for terror and history.  It’s easy to find research sketching out a big and widening divide, like this Reuters report:

news sources by age_Reuters

Will younger generations be able to appreciate tv’s deep emotional and historical heft with their elders, or will they dismiss it as those seniors once mocked radio?  Will aging generations cling ever more tightly to their boxes, those doorways of historical revelation?

I’ve been posting very critically about just how vile American tv “news” has become (example, example, example, example, example). I’ve urged people to stop watching the awful dreck.  Many readers agreed, at least in comments, but others have not.  Previously I have not held any empathy for the pushbackers, but now I have some sympathy, recognizing my own deeply laid emotional tether to the tv set.  I still abhor what Fox, CNN, et al are, and you should all drop them like radioactive stones.  Find history elsewhere, in better venues!

How about you?  What was the first major news story you remember?  What was the first scary one?

*Most of the responses involved tv, but others spoke of different news venues: radio, news, and above all the spoken word in person.



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3 Responses to TV news as a hotline to memory

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    my news memory predates TV — and my first TV memory was not news. News awareness would have been from hearing my parents talking about them and seeing newspaper headlines. My father had been a journalist and for the rest of his read newspapers cover to cover every day. In order my news points were: Russian bomb (1949), Korean War (remembered because my mother was furious with my father for trying to enlist — without telling her), and death of Stalin (1953).

  2. In 1954 and throughout the fifties, I remember bomb scares. A vicious siren would go off all over town, and we children had to stop what we were doing and curl up under our desks. At home, we four kids huddled with my young mother under the dining room table. Mom would panic if any of us tried to crawl out to get a toy, and that panic, atomic fear was contagious. But as you say, that wasn’t exactly an awareness of a national event.

    I remember sitting in a classroom in Novemer 1963 when an emotion-charged voice came over the all-school loudspeaker system saying Kennedy had been shot. School was immediately dismissed. The big yellow school buses were scrambled, and we were all sent home. I remember asking my dad carefully about the location of Dallas, Texas in relationship to Wenatchee, Washington, trying to work out in my mind why we were sent home, what the danger was.

    July 20, 1969, I remember standing on a warm night on the dark shore of Lake Wenatchee looking up at the starry sky. I was working as a summer camp counselor for the YMCA. In my memory, we could somehow see Apollo 11, but I no longer know if that is true. Certainly I hold that night as the historical, magical man-on-the-moon moment.

    After that, the memories start tumbling in, and the evil events of the last few days and last night, as you say, are just layering on the gore.

  3. Pingback: The vileness of American tv news: a new datapoint | Bryan Alexander

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