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Hot Off The Presses: Old News!

5 minute read
Joel Stein

Maybe 2002 was a big year for you. But who writes headlines about you? In the news this was a fake year, a retro year, a year when new ideas were kicked to the curb like some dorky futuristic scooter. If someone came to you 10 years ago and told you that one of the biggest news stories of 2002 would be the rescue of a bunch of guys who work in a coal mine actually mining coal, you would tell Future Boy to get back on his dorky scooter and go home.

Maybe we’re living in the past because we feel all freaked out about the future. Turned off by coverage of terrorism in Bali and Israel, unrest in Venezuela, nukes in North Korea or arms laundering in Yemen, we gobbled up huge scoops of comfort news. Reading the newspaper this year was like reading that newspaper they hand out at Colonial Williamsburg, the one with headlines like SILVERSMITH THROWN IN GAOL FOR STEALING GOODIE SMITH’S PEANUT SOUPE RECIPE. O.K., I’ve never read that newspaper. But in the New York Times, which I occasionally read during boring meetings, I found out that the Dow slipped to 1997 levels and swept away all those confusing new companies I never bothered to understand in the first place, with their energy trading and e-tailing and telling people they’ve got mail. None of the news seemed at all fresh this year: Attacking Iraq? Jimmy Carter getting a peace prize? Smallpox vaccinations? Droughts plaguing Western farmers? Liza Minnelli getting married? Axis of evil? Airline bankruptcies? Ozzy Osbourne? It’s like CNN was replaced by CNN Classic. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re rerunning old infrared shots of Baghdad. They’ve got to do something to offset Daryn Kagan’s insane salary demands.

The terrorists that struck our country in 2002 weren’t recruits from international cells but the regular crazy homegrown kind: a sniper spending time with a kid who calls himself his stepson in the ickiest father-son bonding since Bill Wyman’s son became his dad’s ex-stepfather, and a college kid who was planting mailbox bombs in order to make a happy face on the map. A happy face? What year was that kid living in? We call them emoticons now.

Even weirder were our public debates. Last year we were arguing about cloning and stem-cell research. This year we pretended to argue about things we agreed upon long ago. The Times used its new front-page editorial section to lead our country into a brave fight over whether women should be allowed to join golf clubs. This is a decision that was last grappled with by Darren from Bewitched–the first Darren. It’s a little late to take a stand on this when we’ve already got women reporters in the male golf-club locker room. Trent Lott had us, for several weeks, discussing why segregation is bad. It was like our national high school debate team accidentally picked up a topic list from 1958.

We spent a shocking amount of time talking about John Walker Lindh and using the word traitor for the first time since the school play in which Peter Brady had to be Benedict Arnold. After 8,000 MSNBC hours of everyone’s agreeing that fighting for the Taliban against the U.S. is wrong, the deepest thought anyone came up with was the 40-year-old tautology that Marin County parents are wackjobs.

The Supreme Court listened to a big case on cross burning, a subject so universally agreed upon so long ago that Clarence Thomas felt safe enough to talk out loud about it. More amazingly, the Catholic Church convened a conference in Rome to discuss what to do with pedophile priests. You would think after the first half an hour, when someone said, “How about we put them in jail?” they would all go home. But they kept going, coming up with a long proclamation that, somehow, was something other than “How about we put them in jail?”

Like a nation of Dr. Phils, we couldn’t get enough of stating the obvious. People wrote news stories that seriously examined Gary Condit’s re-election bid and fat people suing fast-food restaurants, leaving very little for the Onion to do. When Letterman almost bumped Nightline off ABC, long editorials were written saying that Ted Koppel’s show is indeed smart–many by Ted Koppel himself. After extensive video review, we determined that people should not dangle their babies over the railing of the third-floor balconies or shave off their entire nose. We pretended to get newly upset about all sorts of things we already knew, like that figure-skating judges are corrupt. Wait until people find out how boxing works.

I know we’re worried about dirty bombs and biowarfare and it’s comforting to agree, but we’re not going to get anywhere if we spend 2003 debating the ethical dilemmas of debtors’ prisons and how many fifths of a person a slave is and whether the Stones have gone disco. We need to get back to facing the difficult, finely nuanced, real moral dilemmas facing us today, like J. Lo’s wedding.

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