Even though I spent a decade in the newspaper business, I’m not sure I know what “news” is anymore. What’s even worse is that I’m not sure I ever did know what it was. Was I in the news business? Or was I in the business of filling holes with trivia to attract readers for our advertisers?
There’s an argument that what we call news has always been fairly banal. A dictionary I consulted said that news is “information about recent and important events,” but who’s to say what’s important? If the market is deciding, isn’t there always going to be a race to the bottom — a race to attract people with sensational and emotional stories rather than any discussion of things that matter?
In “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of being concerned that our inventions were giving us a technological ability to communicate, but he worried that people didn’t have things to say to each other that really mattered:
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” [Emphasis mine]
What if our whiz-bang technology is ultimately empty in many ways? What if our incredible satellites and TV production facilities and complicated infrastructure give us the means to communicate with one another, but what if the things we have to say are banal and empty? That’s what I’m afraid of.
As I’ve spent time in doctors’ offices recently, I’ve been disgusted to see that the vast majority of people want to watch television — and they seem eager to consume whatever is put in front of them. Daytime programming makes me ill. I saw one show recently by someone who goes by “Wendy” that had me convinced for the longest time that it was brilliant satire. I thought this creature was a man in drag doing a satire of people who cared about celebrities. But it wasn’t satire. It was real.
It’s bad enough to see the kind of programming that caters to people’s basest instincts and most idiotic thoughts, but shouldn’t news shows be held to a higher standard? Technically, they are. They’re dressed up more nicely (most of the time), but when you strip away the nice graphics and the suits of the serious people on the screen, you find that it’s just entertainment. They’re just telling banal, surface-level stories with no context and no meaning in the larger picture.
I’m willing to believe that news used to be important, at least some of the time. I’m no longer certain of that, but I’m willing to assume that it mattered. I can’t see what’s on now as mattering. It’s entertainment. It’s story-telling designed to grab people’s emotions. The people who do the work are very skilled entertainers, but the product we see doesn’t mean anything. It’s just People magazine on steroids. It may be human interest and it may be emotional, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the big picture of life and it doesn’t help us understand our society. It’s not what I think of as “news.”
Last week, we had some tornadoes in my area. As far as I can tell, the only person who was killed was an attractive 16-year-old girl who lived not far from me. I happened to hear one of the local television stations do multiple “news” stories about her death a couple of days later. There was no news. It was just shameless pandering to emotions. The reporter and camera were at the school where the girl had attended, so they were trying to find people to emote on screen for them. There was absolutely nothing to say, but an attractive young white girl died, so this ought to be good for ratings. I’ll bet a lot of people watched it. But it’s not news. (Click the cartoon above for a perfect illustration of what’s standard practice now.)
There’s a scene near the beginning of the 1987 movie, “Broadcast News,” that captures my frustration well. Holly Hunter plays Jane, a dedicated producer who believes in doing important news. She’s speaking to an industry group and bemoaning the fact that many people were turning news into entertainment. She shows her audience — of other television journalists — video that was shown on all the major networks of the Japanese domino championships two years before that. The video is spectacular, as dominoes fall into one another and send waves of other dominoes crashing down, setting off fireworks.
The audience of TV journalists claps and cheers with delight at the footage. Jane has to speak over them to say, “I know it’s good film. I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news. [The audience continues to applaud.] Well, you’re lucky you love it. You’re going to get a lot more just like it.” An anonymous voice in the audience yells enthusiastically, “Good!”
That’s where we are today. What’s supposed to be news is entertainment — and nobody seems to notice or care anymore.
I used to feel exactly as Jane did. I thought we could find ways to do “important news,” but I’m no longer sure we can. I’m never sure we did. When I think back to what I wrote and edited, I can’t say that I contributed to people’s understanding the world better. I can’t say I did anything that mattered.
More and more, I’m going to back to the insights of Neil Postman from his classic book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” (If you haven’t read it, please do.) Postman argued that broadcast news — and television in particular — isn’t capable of giving us anything complex and important. It’s not capable of giving us ideas.
The worst part is that I fear Emerson’s insight was even more scary. What if we have all of this amazing technology — including the Internet today — and very few of us have anything of substance to say to each other? A few of us crave a connection with others to learn things that we’ve been missing, but the direction of the world is exactly the opposite of that. It’s toward “Idiocracy.”
As someone who was trained in journalism and spent a decade as a reporter, editor and publisher, this is hard for me to say, but my advice is to give up on news. Spend your time on ideas instead. The trivia of the world that’s fading away has little to offer to you. Concern yourself with the ideas you’re going to need to build a new life instead. I have a feeling we’re all going to need those insights soon, because this society truly is amusing itself to its collective death.