Between the time I went to sleep and the time I woke up on the night that stretched from Oct. 1-Oct. 2, a gunman opened fire on thousands of people at an outdoor music festival from an upper floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. It wasn’t until I dropped off my kids at school and turned on the radio in the car that I learned of what had taken place, about how more than 50 people were killed, about how hundreds and hundreds were injured, and about how thousands of lives were permanently changed in the passing of one night.
Making tragedy routine
And yet, as I drove my short drive to my next stop listening to the radio, as I caught glimpses of TVs in my gym, as I listened to another radio broadcast coming over the loud speakers in the exercise room, I found myself struck not only by the tragedy itself but also by the way the news was being delivered, no matter who was delivering it.
To put it briefly, this news — like all news — was fitted in to whatever else was going on, whatever else was already planned, whatever else would entertain whoever was watching or listening to whatever program was airing. Before long, I found myself thinking back to commentary from Neil Postman, who in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (Penguin, $16) wrote the following:
“’Now ... this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now ... this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately 45 seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for 90 seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment or a commercial.” [taken from the 20th anniversary edition]
Processing all this
Because on my local NPR affiliate, I heard them go from a long segment on Bill Murray’s new theatrical album — “New Worlds” — where he sings and reads American classics, to a short bit on the Las Vegas shooting, to another short bit on Donald Trump tweeting at the San Juan mayor, to the announcement that three American scientists just won the Nobel Prize. Between the end of the Murray bit and the beginning of the Nobel Prize bit, I would guess that about two minutes elapsed, maybe three.
Because on ESPN, I watched them go from a fairly long segment on the drama of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not throwing the ball to wide receiver Antonio Brown on a play where he was wide open (after which Brown threw a massive tantrum) to a brief segment on the Las Vegas shooting where they found a washed up Major League Baseball pitcher who tweeted a message from the concert right before the shooting and then tweeted another message soon afterwards. “The sports world” was also affected by this event, the host commented. Then they went to a commercial, where an upbeat insurance advertisement led off the lineup.
Because on the predictably obnoxious morning talk show that blares from either some local radio station or satellite radio at my gym, they went on and on in their upbeat, chatty, giggly voices about who-knows-what, then lowered their voices briefly to say something about Las Vegas, then climbed the scales again into their native land of la-la-banality.
Because when I looked on Facebook later in the morning, I saw a notice about the Las Vegas shooting on the right side of the browser window, surrounded by a notice about Facebook itself giving over 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Congress, a notice about those three Americans who just won the Nobel Prize, a sponsored advertisement for the DNA-powered Helix store (I am not quite sure what that is), a sponsored ad promoting the rewards club at Buffalo Wild Wings, and a snapshot summary of events coming up with which I am apparently in some way connected.
On Twitter, the following “trends” accompanied “Las Vegas”: President Trump, U.S. Supreme Court, Newtown, Sheriff Lombardo, #thoughtsandprayers, #shooting, Nobel Prize, 50 Dead, #guncontrol, Jason Aldean.
Something more than this
Through each of these media, Postman’s critique finds relevance: Once again it appears that there is absolutely nothing that we cannot fit into some form of streaming entertainment, even finding some kind of odd consolation when feelings of disgust arise in response to a horrific event (because it feels good to feel), only then to be ushered along to whatever’s up next. The difference now is that we don’t even need to hear “Now ... this” to tell us to transition: It’s become second nature. Most entertainment is streaming entertainment, which demands that those who are being entertained are kept moving along so as not to lose interest. And nothing sparks interest like being confronted with something “new”, over and over again.
In contrast to all this, I ended up reflecting on the absolute necessity of sustained mental prayer in our times more than ever. What mental prayer concerns is holding our attention in one place, for a long period of time, moving well beyond the rush or the thrill of new feelings into the depths of disturbance, compassion, vicarious suffering, solidarity and whatever else may arise. The heart of prayer is attention, and the capacity for attention is what we need most not only in our world but also deep within ourselves. #PrayersforLasVegas (trending on Twitter on the morning of October 2) cannot be offered in quick bursts, fitted between one thing and the next thing in an ever-flowing stream that caters to our own attention deficiency. True prayers have to do with giving over the time and space of one’s heart, one’s mind, one’s cares and one’s concerns for the condition of another. The entertainment media cannot foster the disposition for prayer — only silence and stillness make us capable of this genuine form of prayer. In order to “lift up” our hearts to God for the sake of others, we likely have to “tune out” the purveyors of “Now ... this.”
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D, works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His books are available from Ave Maria Press and University of Notre Dame Press.