“What if political scientists covered the news?” asks Christopher Beam in a new article in Slate:
A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday—an arbitrary event that had no affect on the trajectory of American politics.
Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.
Most of us realize that the events of last week’s news cycle will likely have no real effect on the election in 2012. Indeed, if we were pressed to be truthful, most of us would have to admit that what is sold as news—whether in newspapers, on cable news programs, etc.—is rarely newsworthy. For those news-junkies who disagree, I suggest asking this two-part question about any news article: What makes this story important and what distinguishes it from mere gossip and/or trivia?
One aspect of any answer would have to include an explanation of how how the story either fits into a broader narrative or has an inherent permanence. But how often does that apply to our daily news? How much of what happens every day truly is all that important? How many of us have ever stopped to ask why we even have daily news, much less the impact 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 hack 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.
This focus on change has a deleterious effect on all forms of conservatism—whether cultural, political, or religious. Once we believed an essential part of our mission as conservatives was, as William Buckley claimed, to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop.’” Change was something to be undertaken slowly and with reflection. After all, the important institutions—family, religion, government—shouldn’t change on a whim. But the focus on dailiness has led conservatives to adopt attitudes that were once the province of hyper-progressivism. We don’t just ask what government has done for us lately, we ask what it has done for us today. We don’t just ask for change when it is needed, we ask for it daily. We are addicted to the process of change.
What is most disconcerting is that we have come to believe that this addiction is normal and that those who aren’t hooked 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 weblogs. 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.
Six years have passed since that article was published. How many people would now consider these items 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 a Christian, I’m expected to take an eternal perspective, viewing events not just in their historical but in their eschatological context. But I can’t do that while focusing on the churning events in the last 24 hours. Events that are truly important are rarely those captured on the front page of a daily paper. As Malcolm Muggeridge, who was himself a journalist, admitted, “I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lordís 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.”