Truth is non-story in 24/7 media culture

Posted: Jun 25, 2003 12:00 AM

One of my favorite writers, Walker Percy, is said to have had a one-word sign posted above his desk - "Wait." What a quaint idea.

In today's media world, we don't wait. Our 24/7 perpetual news cycle and our cultural insistence on instant gratification have produced a bizarre holographic environment in which we try to piece together truth with fragments of evolving reality that shift and morph according to the tilt of the earth and the slant of sunlight.

As a friend recently put it, trying to figure out current events is like trying to watch a 3-D movie without the glasses.

So it is with the war on terrorism and Iraq. The "news" has been delivered at a machine-gun clip that is often more distorting than enlightening. Consider a few examples of what we knew or thought we knew, and then found out otherwise:

Baghdad's National Museum was looted and some 170,000 items of antiquity vanished from history, we were told. Even reporters accustomed to the fog of war were nearly hysterical as they blasted the United States for its cultural carelessness.

But no, it turns out only 33 pieces were lost and the rest were moved to vaults by museum curators prior to bombing. Thirty-three is bad; it's disappointing, a terrible loss. But it's not terrible on the order of 170,000.

Then there was George Galloway, the anti-war British Parliament member, who allegedly was paid millions by Saddam's regime to advance Iraq's interests, according to documents found in Baghdad and reported by the Christian Science Monitor. Wait, no, the documents implicating Galloway were bogus, the Monitor reported last week.

But wait, the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, has other documents that similarly implicate Galloway. They have been examined by the same expert who found the Monitor documents to be forgeries and declared the Telegraph's likely authentic, according a report in The Guardian. Well, which is it?

And then there was the Jessica Lynch story. Heroine or merely victim? Early reports were that she had been shot and stabbed, remember? Then it was revealed that she suffered her injuries when her vehicle crashed during an ambush.

Was she rescued from the hospital where she was being treated - or mistreated, depending on which story you caught? Or did the U.S. Army stage a dramatic, prime-time faux rescue for propagandist effect? Um, film at 11.

Then there's Saddam. He's dead. No, he's alive. He's at the mall with Elvis. Or was that Janis Joplin? DNA testing will verify (or not) that Saddam and at least one of his sons are alive. They probably are. Maybe. But maybe not.

Finally, there's the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) problem. And the question of whether Bush exaggerated the threat of WMD in Iraq, or whether he simply engaged in advanced salesmanship - and whether that's bad or not - or whether he outright lied, as some critics are charging.

The blogosphere is afire with speculation and obsessive analysis. One blogger notes that Bush devoted five paragraphs in his State of the Union address to WMD and only one paragraph to humanitarian concerns. Aha!

So many opinions are swirling on the Internet, as well as on op-ed pages - the sins of which I share - that you can find whatever suits your mood. Or wait a few minutes for one you like better. On the war and Iraq, truth is like Florida weather. If you don't like it, give it five minutes.

Eventually, the truth will out, but for now, the answer to nearly any question related to the war qualifies as an unsexy non-story. We simply don't know yet.

But non-news is the enemy of the 24/7 news cycle, which has become a life force all its own. Something has to be said; somebody has to get "The Get." The show must go on. And so we grab the remote control and suddenly the missing WMD becomes a mystery title, a post-war indictment, a conspiracy. A lie?

Who knows? We may still find WMD. Or convincing evidence that they were a legitimate threat, as the Bush administration insisted. Or we may find some truth in between the extremes. In the meantime, the only rational course is to follow Percy's always-wise lead and . wait.