Nothing points out the banality of news like missing a few days of it. After nearly a week away from news, I wondered if I’d missed anything that mattered to me. After looking around for a few days, I haven’t found anything yet that was worth paying attention to.
From the middle of last week until Monday of this week, I was preoccupied with other things and didn’t read any news. For most of that time, I was taking care of a dying cat. Even when I wasn’t directly dealing with her, I was concerned enough about her that I lost interest in following anything in the news.
Since Tuesday, I haven’t found anything that I missed by ignoring the news for five days or so.
Hundreds and hundreds of websites, TV channels and newspapers are devoted to keeping us up to date on the news. Surely some of what they publish must be vital to me. Right? Or is it just habit to keep paying attention to what they’re saying?
I missed the run-up to the birth of a royal baby. I missed various people in Washington yelling at each other for various things. I missed minute-by-minute coverage of a couple of high-profile political races in New York City. (Both of the races are in the news because of the past sexual escapades of candidates, not because of anything related to the issues in the races.)
What else did I miss? As I’ve looked back over the list of headlines from the last week, I see that all I’ve missed is trivia. I see absolutely nothing that matters to me. I see things that might qualify as entertainment, but not things that matter one way or the other whether I know about them.
For someone who spent years working in news, it’s always jarring to realize how little news matters. I grew up thinking it was important. I read the newspaper every day from an early age. But now, it all seems like banal trivia. And it reminds me of something from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” Captain Beatty is explaining to Montag why modern media helped keep people unthinking and happy:
“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’ they fell 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.”
I don’t believe there’s any specific intent — on the part of media or government — to do this. I think it’s simply what people are interested in paying attention to. Absorbing trivial facts — and thus feeling informed — is easier than having to think about principles or reason things out.
Those in the political and media classes tend to see the world differently, though. I came across a quote Thursday from the late Helen Thomas that gives a peek into that mindset. She was a White House correspondent for almost six decades. In an interview in 2005, she was asked why she stayed on the White House beat instead of moving on to covering something else.
“What made me stay is because it’s the center — everything comes to the White House,” Thomas said. “All news that affects the country or the world comes through the White House so why not be in the center of it? There’s never a day without news, and it always affects this White House. I was interested in the news and that was the place to be.”
And that’s the way these folks think. They think that everything that matters originates with government — and it’s centered around the person we view as a modern-day king.
Thomas’ thinking was very much from the progressive left. She and others like her — which includes those on both the left and right today — believe that pretty much everything that matters comes from government. If there’s a problem, government has the solution. If there’s progress to be made, it will originate with the benevolent dictators in the White House.
Nothing could be further from the truth for my life. Governments only get into the way. And given the fact that so few people share my view about government, there’s nothing for me to gain by keeping up with what it’s doing. It’s going to be done to me whether I follow it every day or not.
The things that matter to me have to do with love and money and creativity and curiosity and hope. There’s nothing in the news that addresses those things. So news is just intellectual clutter. Just trivia.
If I gave up all news for a month, would I ever start paying attention to it again? I’m not sure. Maybe I should try it and see.