In the week since I last posted, we’ve been slammed by a tsunami of major news events: a presidential debate unlike any other, a positive Covid-19 test for the president and for an ever growing number of his confederates, a helicopter evacuation from the White House to Walter Reed and back again — the list goes on. The pings of news alerts woke me from troubled sleep. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the past week a “newsquake.”
As the news poured in, I thought of my late father, a news junkie if ever there was one. He lived for the news, and there was enough news last week to resurrect him.
My parents were born in 1920, a time when news alerts came in the form of newsboys shouting out “Extra, extra, read all about it!” on street corners. My dad worked on his high school newspaper and, at age 21, became a copy “boy” at the Chicago Times (which morphed into the Sun-Times), later advancing to reporter, rewrite man and night city editor. He went on to a long career writing for magazines.
His pursuit of the news was more than professional. It was entertainment of the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up variety. And nothing could match the adrenaline rush of breaking news. In the 1970s, long before the internet revolutionized the delivery of news, my dad found a way to hear the latest: he bought a radio scanner to monitor police calls.
The first scanner he purchased — a chunky black box with a flimsy telescoping antenna — was allegedly a gift for my brother Vince when he turned 12. In the years that followed, father and son purchased increasingly sophisticated Bearcat scanners with the capability to eavesdrop on not only police officers and fire fighters but also on neighbors making phone calls from cordless and cell phones.
Gleaning the latest news from a radio scanner meant keeping the device powered up 24/7. The result was unrelenting static at top volume. Intermittently, the box squawked with human voices that I couldn’t decipher. My dad, a linguist of static, would translate. Most of the calls sounded humdrum to me, and I couldn’t understand his fascination, although I think it was the aural equivalent of voyeurism.
When my parents moved from the suburbs to a condo overlooking Belmont Harbor, the scanner gained a new lease on life. So much mayhem! So little bandwidth! The highlight of the year was the Chicago Air & Water Show, when fighter jets hurtled past my parents’ 28th floor unit. The grand finale for the scanner came after the show wrapped up, when dozens of amateur boaters signaled the Coast Guard for rescue. They had failed to monitor their gas gauges — as well as their alcohol intake — and were effectively becalmed.
Perhaps my own addiction to the news is genetic. I like to stay informed. But today, “Breaking News” seems to be MSNBC’s default chyron. The virtual newsboys shouting “extra” are my phone and computer, the alerts coming fast and furious. My blood pressure rises a point with every ping. The solution is to turn off the alerts, and I plan to do just that — right after Edward R. Murrow comes back to comfort me.