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June 4, 2014

Another outbreak threatens U.S.

Health-care workers around the globe are trying to prevent the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, while also striving to contain SARS, bird flu, measles, drug-resistant tuberculosis, Ebola and the waning-but-persistent Bieber Fever. But an equally insidious threat is also emerging: Attention Deficit News Consumption, or ADNC.

Scientists believe ADNC first appeared in 1975 when a CB-radio aficionado granted an interview to a local TV consumer-affairs beat reporter in a truck stop parking lot in Pocatello, Idaho, while Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” played quietly in the background. The condition flared up sporadically until 1994, when researchers saw a dramatic spike in victims across the country. Scientists now attribute that spike to the birth of the World Wide Web. Today, the condition afflicts millions of Americans. While many are simply carriers, countless others suffer from full-blown ADNC.

One of the more insidious aspects of the disorder is that it takes so many forms. In one variation, a victim might get all his news from Twitter. Another victim might read three news stories during the course of reading another news story. Yet a third type of victim sits in her car listening to NPR while watching cable news through the window of Applebee’s, maniacally swiping through Flipboard on her iPad and posting comments on The Daily Beast via her smart watch. (For a cheeky but in no way comprehensive compilation of the forms of ADNC, see “27 Epic Injuries People Sustained Consuming News” on Buzzfeed.com.)

Not long ago, people were severely limited in their news choices, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Local daily newspapers with in-depth stories were the norm. They were widely read but were severely limited in their ability to provide videos of cats crawling across computer keyboards and fans comically posting mean tweets about celebrities. It was a dreary time of deep political insight, diligent government, corporate oversight and Marmaduke.

National newspapers and print magazines brought an added perspective to local news consumers in those days. Nightly, national TV news shows, broadcasting on just a handful of channels, offered intelligent reporting with almost no interruptions from America’s pharmaceutical industry. Even AM radio had news. No, seriously: AM radio had actual reporting.

While those old media formats had severe limitations, they did offer Americans an option to consume professionally reported and edited news. The dearth of choices reinforced a news consumer’s natural ability to stay focused on a story, even when it went beyond 350 words.

Today’s news marketplace makes information more accessible, thanks to social media, The Huffington Post and the ability to consume all our news in bulleted lists or shouted cable punditry, not to mention the surprising facts our senior citizens forward us on email. Many of us receive our news pre-satirized, which is a real time-saver. It is easy to be well informed in our day and age — unless you contract ADNC.

In today’s media landscape, an ADNC sufferer on the road to meaningful information with the best intentions might find herself instead diverted to painstaking minutiae and analysis about a hip-hop mogul in an elevator or the exposed hindquarters of a member of the British royal family.

As you might expect, the symptoms of ADNC vary widely. Sufferers rarely are able to maintain an accurate grasp of geopolitics, climate science, constitutional law or economics, yet they can describe in detail the progress of Hollywood baby bumps and they are ever-ready to weigh in on the hairstyles of Michelle Obama.

But if the symptoms have one common denominator, it is fear. In the not-too-distant past, there wasn’t much to worry about other than thermonuclear annihilation and disco music, whereas today’s ADNC sufferers walk around with paralyzing dread, including but not limited to fear of bears, coyotes, heroin addicts, not being able to find heroin, terrorists, rising sea levels, gangs, hurricanes, gay marriage, not being able to marry, erections lasting fewer than 30 seconds or more than four hours, big data, the Lord’s wrath on judgment day, binge-watching the wrong TV series, atheists, religious zealots, E. coli, being gunned down in the street by a deranged lunatic, having guns taken away, the copious and mortifying shit our moms post on Facebook, tumors, rumors, baby boomers, SARS, bird flu, measles, drug-resistant tuberculosis, Ebola and the waning-but-persistent Bieber Fever. And now ADNC.

Long-term damage to America itself is yet to be determined.