‘News’ Makes Us Dumber
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‘News’ Makes Us Dumber

how-the-newsConstantly in search of a sensational story, the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst once sent a telegram to a leading astronomer that read: “Is there life on Mars? Please cable 1,000 words.” The scientist responded “Nobody knows” — repeated 500 times.

I thought of that anecdote when I read Elise Hilton’s post earlier today in which she asks, “You remember ‘news’, don’t you? Every evening, a somber-faced reporter would come into your living room, and deliver the serious stories of the day.” She adds, “We seemed to have decided, as a nation, that ‘infotainment’ is more important to us than news.”

I don’t often disagree with Elise, but I have to register my dissent on this topic – a perennial theme of mine – for the news has been a form of infotainment in America for at least a hundred years (and possibly much longer). And when it comes to the medium of television, news cannot be anything other than infotainment.

As the late media theorist Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death,

The problem is not that TV presents the masses with entertaining subject matter, but that television presents all subject matter as entertaining. What is dangerous about television is not its junk. Every culture can absorb a fair amount of junk, and, in any case, we do not judge a culture by its junk but by how it conducts its serious public business. What is happening in America is that television is transforming all serious public business into junk.

As our politics, our news, our religion, our education, and our commerce are less and less given expression in the form of printed words or even oratory, they are rapidly being reshaped and staged to suit the requirements of television. And because television is a visual medium; because it does its talking in pictures, not words; because its images are in color and are most pleasurably apprehended when they are fast-moving and dynamic; because television demands an immediate and emotional response; because television is nothing at all like a pamphlet, a newspaper, or a book; because of all this and more, all discourse on television must take the form of an entertainment. Television has little tolerance for arguments, hypotheses, reasons, explanations, or any of the instruments of abstract, expositional thought. What television mostly demands is a performing art. Thinking is not a performing art. Showing is. And so what can be shown rather than what can be thought becomes the stuff of our public consciousness. In all arenas of public business, the image now replaces the word as the basic unit of discourse. As a consequence, television makes the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas obsolete. It creates a new metaphor: the marketplace of images.

I completely agree with Postman that the “junk” — Kardashian babies and ugly Cosby sweater polls – are not what’s dangerous. What is dangerous is that we consider every current event to be “news.” Consider, for instance, two examples that Elise highlights as serious news: the Zimmerman verdict and its racial implications and the Asiana crash.

The Zimmerman verdict is a prime example of a media-fueled story, sensationally reported to stoke ratings. The only reason we are talking about the “racial implications” is because the media has framed the story as a racial issue (which was quite different from the way it was portrayed in the courtroom).

Likewise, the Asiana crash is newsworthy, but it is stretch to call it serious news. By what standard would we judge the event worthy of more than one single news story? Three people were killed, which is tragic, but more than 225 are killed in San Francisco in traffic related incidents every every. Why are three plane-crash related deaths worthy of national news attention when the same number who died this week in car-related fatalities are not? Could it be because an airplane crash is unusual and provides some striking imagery? In other words, because it it easier to turn into infotainment?

As I’ve written in another venue, the problem is that most news is largely irrelevant to our lives as Christians. Most of us realize that the events of last week’s news cycle — like the previous 51 other news cycles this year — will probably not have a significant effect on how we live. Indeed, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that what is sold as news — on newspaper pages, the Internet, or cable news programs — is rarely newsworthy at all. For those news-junkies who disagree, I suggest pondering this question: Why is Dan Rather not considered one of the wisest men in America?

We could substitute intelligent or knowledgeable for wisest, though I suspect the reaction would be the same. The question appears random, even absurd. But consider Rather’s 56 year tenure as a reporter and broadcaster. His career spanned from the assassination of JFK to the Iraq conflict. He covered eight U.S. presidents and hundreds of global leaders. He witnessed hundreds of conflicts, from Cold War battles abroad to civil rights struggles a home. A conservative estimate would be that he spent roughly 75,000 hours reporting, researching, or reading about current events.

If that level of intimacy with the news does not make Rather notably more wise, intelligent, or knowledgeable, then what exactly is the benefit? And what do we expect to gain by spending an hour or two a day keeping up with the latest headlines?

Another question we should ask ourselves is what makes any particular story important to us and what distinguishes it from mere gossip or trivia?

One aspect of any answer would have to include an explanation of how the story fits into a broader narrative or has an air of permanence. But how often does this apply to our weekly, much less daily, news? How much of what happens every day is truly that important? How many have ever stopped to question the fact we even have daily news, much less the effect it is having on our culture?

C. John Sommerville is one brave soul who has dared to ask such questions. In the October 1991 issue of First Things, Sommerville explained “Why the News Makes Us Dumb“:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.

In the book based on the article, Sommerville points out:

The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.

Additionally, Postman once wrote that the media has given us the conjunction, “Now . . . this,” which “does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.”

“Now . . . this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this.”

This focus on change, devoid of context and connection to a greater reality, has a deleterious effect on all forms of public life — whether cultural, political, or religious. Many Christians once considered change to be something to be undertaken slowly and with prayerful reflection. After all, the important institutions — family, church, government — shouldn’t change on a whim. But the focus on dailiness has led many of us to adopt attitudes of hyper-progressivism. For instance, we don’t just ask what our church or government has done for us lately, we ask what they have done for us today. We don’t just ask for change when it is needed, we ask for it to change — for the better presumably — on a daily basis. We are addicted to the process of change.

But it isn’t just gossip-type “news” that is unimportant. Most of what occurs on a daily basis is inconsequential. At the end of his article Sommerville concluded:

Still dubious about all this? Consider the proposition: If it is no longer worth your while to go back and read the News of, oh, September 22, 1976, then it was never worthwhile doing so. And why should today be any different?

As Christians, we’re expected to take an eternal perspective, viewing events not only in their historical but also in their eschatological context. But I can’t do that while focusing on the churning events of the last 24 hours. Events that are truly important are rarely those captured on the front page of a daily paper. As Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a journalist, admitted, “I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and — I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).