PANIC!

Pundit Nick Martens contemplates the classic power of the big, banner headline.

The front page of The Tacoma News Tribune and Ledger from August 16th, 1945 hangs on the wall of an Irish pub a few blocks from my house. In giant bold letters above the masthead, the paper proclaims “PEACE!”.

I’ll probably never know how it feels to see a word like that on my doorstep, but I got a hint on Monday. At around 11 a.m. PST, while checking the web after a morning class, this headline greeted me at NYTimes.com:

BAILOUT REJECTED

When I saw this, my heart stopped.

Understand that I’m an English major. Though I want to be worldly, I fundamentally do not understand finance. Not that I don’t try. I read Paul Krugman’s column every week, and I watched the hour-long talk he gave at Google. I listened to the acclaimed This American Life episode on the economic crisis, and I subscribe to its spin-off, Planet Money. I’ve heard about it on NPR and read about it in N+1. I even got Kevin to give me a (simplified) version of the Pokèmon card analogy he used on his 14 year-old sister.

None of it stuck. I knew from all the arm-waving that something big was happening, but I couldn’t find a firm mental grasp on such an unwieldy topic.

But that headline hit me hard. I finally realized that we might really be fucked. Grappling with the trillion-dollar transgressions of titanic institutions only made me dizzy; but those big, capital letters and jagged, sinking line triggered a primal panic in me, an eighty-year echo from my great-grandparents.

There’s something deeply satisfying about the banner headline. It’s the perfect incarnation of journalistic objectivity; it abides neither opinion nor interpretation. Just a giant story in giant letters. It’s especially poignant here, seated above a spray of catastrophe. The bluntness of the language barely contains the hysteria it describes. While the words lie callous on the page, the mind roils in terror.

I’m glad I read the news in “print” instead of hearing it on CNN (“Breaking! How does the bailout affect Sarah Palin’s dog?”) or from a friend (“Holy shit dude, did you hear about the fucking bailout?”). No other medium could have stirred up the potent cocktail of emotions that lead me to understand the true weight of this crisis. I just wish I could hang it in my pub.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.