Twittering Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Like most other unhealthy, neurotic Washington-based news junkies, the last thing I do before turning in at night is to check my BlackBerry just one last time for any evening news developments. I then dutifully place the little contraption that rules all on the nightstand about two inches from my face.

And yes, if I happen to awaken during the night, more likely than not I will take a quick glance just to make sure I haven’t missed anything important. Like I said, it is an unhealthy, neurotic, unbalanced way to live, but I suspect I am not alone in my electro-nocturnal habits.

Last night was no exception.

The toss. The turn. The wake-up. And the reach for the Blackberry. Track wheel pushed, I noticed a Breaking News e-mail courtesy of my friends at CNN.

Now, right up front I better tell you that I am a former longtime Capitol Hill producer for Fox News. And I don’t think I would be called a lunatic if I suggested that CNN and Fox historically haven’t exactly had the best relationship on the planet.

But, CNN is a fine news-gathering organization and I have tons of friends there, as I do at Fox, MSNBC and the broadcast news networks as well. All that to say, I don’t mean to single out CNN with what I am about to say. And besides I am the one who has chosen to be on their Breaking News Alert system.

With that quite fair and balanced lead-up let’s go back a few hours to precisely 2:23 in the morning. I click on the Breaking News e-mail with a little trepidation. I mean, after all, I was physically in the Capitol on Sept. 11 and had a front-row seat to the anthrax attacks and all the other run-for-your-life, Capitol-emptying episodes following various airspace violations.

Furthermore, as career-debilitating as it might seem, being a good American citizen has always been a much higher calling to me that being a good journalist, and, believe me when I say that being a journalist in Washington is a high honor that I do not take lightly.

Back to the middle of the night. As I clicked on the Breaking News e-mail multiple thoughts raced through my mind at once. Must be another Somalia pirate episode, I thought. Or, President Obama is in Mexico. God forbid, maybe there was an incident of some kind. Those and a half-dozen other scary scenarios raced through my groggy head as I proceeded to click on the story.

And here it is — just as I read it at 2:23 early this morning:

“CNN Breaking News — Ashton Kutcher is first to reach 1 million followers in Twitter contest with CNN.”

After my initial relief that some catastrophe hadn’t befallen us, I clicked it again to make sure this wasn’t some kind of joke. I will have much more to say on twittering in this space in the days ahead, but I suspect that you might already know my thoughts on that.

All this to say, and to keep this tirade shorter than the book itself, I think this might be a good time to mention that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the publishing of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by the late and truly great Neil Postman of New York University.

If you have never read this book, do yourself a favor and buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy from the public library. They won’t mind. It will clear some space for some collector-item DVDs of the lost episodes of “Family Feud.”

Postman lays out two worldviews: George Orwell’s big-brotherish, book-burning world of 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where, according to Postman, people would come to “love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.”

Relishing their world of trivia and technology, there would be no need to burn books because no one would be reading them anyway, so why bother. Sorry for the rant. Pretty tough stuff for a blog, I know, but I just thought I would get it off my chest so I can get back to CNN and see if Ashton is going for 2 million.