For a few weeks now I’ve kept a rigorous – and, for me, unusual – routine of avoiding all news sources. In normal times I strive to catch regular updates of current events, and the present self-isolation has allowed me to check even more frequently. Online, I’ve gone to CBC, CNN, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the New York Times, and the Washington Post; I also listen to CBC Radio’s The World This Hour, and I’ve often watched the PBS News Hour and my local CBC news on television. Now, as someone who’s always tried to stay informed, I have no idea what’s going on – at least as the news industry defines it.
I hasten to add that I’ve not replaced my mainstream outlets with any underground alternatives purporting to tell me “the truth” about “what THEY don’t want you know.” When I mean to break the addiction to a constant feed of articles, clips, and videos, I am non-ideological and my isolation is complete. Why? Partly it’s the sheer exhaustion of keeping up in calamitous times: a global pandemic, a US election, international protests, and assorted crises and perils of allegedly unprecedented dimensions. More deeply, though, there is a growing suspicion that what constitutes “news” is really just opinion, speculation, and provocation.
A comedian – was it Benny Hill? – once noted how fishy it was that just enough happened every day to fill all the newspapers, and he was closer to the truth than he realized. A classic rule of newsgathering holds that when a dog bites a man, that’s not news (because it’s a usual occurrence), but when a man bites a dog, that is news (since it’s not supposed to happen that way). Yet few leads ever adhere to that standard. Most are just Man-Bite Numbers Don’t Add Up, Says Dog Expert; or Dog Looks at Man – Man Threatens Action; or Dog-biting by Men – A Growing Trend?; or One-Third of All Men Would Bite Dogs – Poll; or Dog and Man Agree to Further Talks.
Many stories are in fact information about other information, rather than a documentary account of a recent physical occurrence. Sometimes the focus is on a celebrity’s tweet or a politician’s remark, or even some controversy of yesteryear now uncovered for fresh attention. Admittedly it’s difficult to avoid this kind of contrivance when the most powerful man in the world is essentially an internet troll, but the effect is of being in a global schoolyard or hair salon where a gaggle of bored troublemakers whisper scandals and dish dirt all day: Did you hear what she had the unmitigated gall to say to him? Can you believe what they said about it? Don’t listen to those gossips, let me give you the real scoop – wait till I tell you, you’ll simply die when you find out!
Some of this falls under the category of so-called pearl-clutching, whereby political camps opportunistically profess abject shock and dismay over some petty affront committed by their opponents. At other times, however, it’s news organizations themselves who are pearl-clutching on the audience’s behalf: digging up nuggets of indignation which keep readers upset and logged on. None of this is really journalism in the traditional sense, but rather a kind of curated outrage. Few of the stories resonate for more than a few days, until they’re replaced by a newer kerfuffle.
Despite what conspiracy theorists might insist, it’s not that contemporary news is just “lies,” intentionally spreading falsehoods to fulfil a secret agenda. Rather, it’s what others have called “nuzak,” a background hum of relayed reality which stimulates some parts of the brain (that respond to novelty, emotion, and sensation) while sedating others (that work on logic, reason, and long-term reflection). Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 book The Image is still relevant 60 years on:
This change in our attitude toward “news” is not merely a basic fact about the history of American newspapers. It is a symptom of a revolutionary change in our attitude toward what happens in the world, how much of it is new, and surprising, and important. Toward how life can be enlivened, toward our power and the power of those who inform and educate and guide us, to provide synthetic happenings to make up for the lack of spontaneous events. Demanding more than the world can give us, we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world’s deficiency.
My conclusion, after several weeks, is that though I miss my news habit, I’m probably not missing much.