The period between Christmas and New Year’s Day is often described as a “slow-news week.” We use that phrase without considering that world-historical events seem to take a vacation during the period when journalists are on holiday. Could it be that most of what is considered news is a product created for consumption when we are most likely to be paying attention?
Most of us realize that the events of last week’s news cycle—just like the previous fifty- one other news cycles this year—will probably not have a significant impact on our lives. Indeed, if we were pressed to be truthful, 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 asking this two-part question about any news article: What makes this story important 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 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 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.
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 F. 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 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.
Six 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 a Christian, I’m 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 twenty-four 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 is web editor of First Things. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
C. John Sommerville, Why the News Makes Us Dumb.
Steve Outing, The Blog-Only News Diet .