Is the News Making Us Dumb?
JOE CARTER | 8:36 AM CT
If you’ve been following the news the past few days you may believe that an Elvis impersonator from Mississippi is being held for mailing ricin-laced letters to President Obama, that more than 60 people died in a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, and that two Eastern Orthodox bishops were kidnapped by terrorists and released the same day. But while each of those items contains a grain of truth, they are mostly false. The bishops were abducted, but major news agencies were fooled into believing they had been released; the death toll in the West, Texas, explosion is 15; and Paul Kevin Curtis was released by investigators who believe he might have been framed. The irony is that the people who were blissfully unaware of the latest news would be accused of being uninformed, when news hounds were likely to be the most ill-informed of all.
The problem isn’t merely that the latest news is inaccurate—that is an inevitable feature of daily news—but that most news is largely irrelevant to our lives as Christians. Most of us realize that the events of last week’s news cycle—just 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.
The late media critic Neil 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.
The most disconcerting consequence of this addiction is the belief that it is normal, and that those who aren’t tuned into a daily news feed are ill-informed. Take, for example, an article Steve Outing wrote a few years ago for the Poynter Institute in which he describes an “experiment in mainstream-media deprivation.”
Outing documents how Steve Rubel, a blogger and public relations executive, conducted a news experiment in which he gave up his regular media habits and learned what was going on in the world solely by checking blogs. Rubel claims that he “definitely lacked the depth of knowledge of current events” gained in a normal week. “I felt a little naked,” he says, “having received the basics of the week’s news from blogs, but not getting the real meat.”
What was this “real meat” Rubel missed out on? Outing gave him a quiz:
While knowing why President Bush hired a criminal lawyer last week, and the official reasons cited for George Tenet’s resignation from the CIA, Rubel missed actor Daniel Radcliffe’s statement that he thinks his Harry Potter character will die at the end of the J.K. Rowling book series. He didn’t catch ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s admission that he tried heroin and was a cocaine user. And he missed more obscure stories, such as one of Seattle’s famed monorail trains catching fire.
Nine years after that article was published, how much of that information would now be considered newsworthy? Who truly believes that Rubel was ill-informed for not being aware of such trivia?
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.”
Addendum: Constantly 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.
Most days bloggers and journalists (like me) are like Hearst, always looking for material to fill empty space (and often we are like the astronomer, repeating what we have to say to the point of absurdity). One of the reasons TGC created the You Should Know section was to attempt to provide a space to discuss the broader context of news and stories we hear every day. Let us know if you find this feature helpful and how we might do a better job countering the decontextualization of our “Now . . . this” culture.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.