The "Now, This..." Culture: Daily news and the death of wisdom
With the churning detritus of the twenty-four hour news cycle separating everything from everything, how do we discern what's truly important?
Confess that you rarely read blogs, listen to talk radio or watch reality television, and most people will make no general assumptions about your intelligence. But admit that you never watch television news, rarely listen to radio news broadcasts and only read newspapers on Sundays (and then only the comics page), and the reaction will be markedly different. You will automatically be pegged as a being ill-informed, out-of-touch, and possibly even anti-intellectual.
But what is it about daily news that is worthy of such veneration? Why do so many people buy into the ridiculous notion that a daily diet of current events is anything other than a mindless—though perhaps harmless—form of amusement? Even ardent news-hounds will admit that the bulk of daily "news" is nothing more than trivia or gossip. So how much of what happens every day is truly all that important? How many of us have ever stopped to ask why we even have daily news?
One brave soul who has dared ask that question is University of Florida history professor C. John Sommerville. In his excellent book, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Age (InterVarsity Press, 1999), he defines "dumbness" as the inability to make connections—logical, historical or factual. In this sense, Sommerville argues, daily news serves to make us dumber:
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.
We have substituted a hunger for context—the basis for knowledge and understanding—with an addiction to disconnected bits of information. Even more disconcerting is that we have come to believe that this habit is normal, and that those who aren't hooked into a daily news feed are ill-informed.
Several years ago, The Poynter Institute ran an experiment in what they called "mainstream-media deprivation." They document how public relations expert Steve Rubel conducted a news fast, in which he gave up his regular media habits and learned what was going on in the world solely by checking blogs.
Rubel says 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 he was missing out on? An editor at Poynter gave him a quiz to test his knowledge of current events:
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.
What is ironic is how completely un-newsworthy most of these items appeared even a few weeks after the experiment, much less six years later. Since most of these stories would have fallen into the category of trivia and gossip, did Rubel really miss out on anything important?
Notice also that none of the stories are set in a larger context or connected to each other. 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."
As a Christian, I'm expected to take an eternal perspective, viewing events not only in their historical context but also in their eschatological context. But I can't do that if my attention is focused on the churning detritus of the twenty-four hour news cycle, since events that are truly important are rarely those captured on the front page of a daily paper.
As Malcolm Muggeridge 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."
Indeed, imagine if CNN were reporting on events in first century Palestine: ". . . three revolutionaries were crucified on Golgatha today. Included among the executions was a man called Jesus, who some Jews considered to be the messiah. Those hopes were dashed, however, around three P.M. when Roman soldiers declared Jesus dead. And now, this . . ."