What would happen if everybody quit watching news? What would happen if people quit reading newspapers? Would the resulting world be more ignorant? Or would the resulting world be more interesting and insightful — as people started thinking about important things in their own lives instead of trivia in other people’s worlds?
I didn’t pay attention to a bit of news Wednesday. It was a very stressful day for me, so I just didn’t have time. I had some work deadlines that were pretty much impossible to meet, and I was worrying about a cat whose leg was being amputated. (Bessie came through surgery just fine, by the way. I might get to see her today, but she’ll be staying at the vet’s office at least through Friday.)
So I was busy enough — and preoccupied enough — that I didn’t read a news story or see any bit of news online or overhear any TV news story. Did it matter? Would it matter if I did the same thing every single day from now on?
I spent more than 10 years working in news, so I used to think I knew what news was. What’s more, I thought news was important. I’ve written before about the fact that I’ve become unclear about what news is, because it’s become entertainment. Now I’m becoming more and more convinced that news is worse than unnecessary. I’m starting to think it’s something that gets in the way of things we ought to be thinking about instead.
I just pulled the first 10 headlines off of CNN’s website. Is there a single story among these that you really need to know about?
Check your tickets: Numbers drawn for $320M lottery prize
Seattle ace throws perfect game
Conservative group’s guard shot
Britain’s Prince Philip hospitalized
Test of mach 6 aircraft fails
Court halts Hasan case over beard
Police: Moviegoer shoots self in rear
Salt creeping up the Mississippi River
N.Y. subpoenas banks over Libor
Travel spending could cost general
A few of them have some mild attraction because they’re just weird trivia. (How did the guy at the movies shoot himself in the rear, for instance?) But are you better off paying attention to this stuff? Or are you better off giving your attention to the people who matter in your life?
When you spend such a larger percentage of your time absorbing this information, are you really thinking thoughts worth thinking? Are you being constructive? Are you engaging yourself with new ideas? Or are you almost exclusively filling your head with trivia — which makes you end up feeling “informed”?
I was talking about this subject with someone the other day who reminded me of a passage from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” which speaks to this. A character who represents the Establishment of the book’s world is explaining why it had been a good thing to shift people’s thinking from ideas to trivia.
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of “facts” that they feel stuffed, but absolutely “brilliant” with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.
Isn’t that what news has become? Aren’t we becoming stuffed full of useless bits and pieces of information that do us absolutely no good to know? What difference does it make to you to know that the test of a new aircraft has failed? Or that New York (is that the whole state or what?) has subpoenaed banks about something called Libor? Or that Prince Phillip is in the hospital, for heaven’s sake? Does it matter? Does any of it matter?
Why do we still believe this stuff is important? Why do we pretend that educated and informed people pour this trivia into their brains instead of thinking about real ideas or interacting with their family and friends?
I spent more than 10 years doing something that I thought was important. I eventually realized it wasn’t important, but I still thought that it at least could be important. Or, at worst, useless. Now I suspect something far worse — that it’s dangerous to our intellectual, emotional and social lives.
I grew up in love with the idea of news. I was a newspaper reader from the days when I was so young I could barely figure out the comics. I still miss that world, but it’s just nostalgia. I’ve come to believe that the trivia that it taught me to value was a danger to me.
I’m still considering what the implications of this are. I’ll let you know when I’ve decided. In the meantime, I’m going to try some more “news free” days. You might want to consider trying it. too.