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How the News Makes Us Dumb

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If you are going to read just one out of print book with a terrible cover this year read C. John Sommerville’s devastating little book How the News Makes Us Dumb (IVP 1999). I read the book soon after it came out. It was wonderfully iconoclastic then–and that was before the ascendancy of the internet and social media. The news examples are hopelessly out of date (they were already in 1999), but the media criticism is as relevant as ever.

Sommerville’s main point is not the news is dumb, but that we are dumb for paying so much attention to it (11). We have become conditioned to think that the really important stuff of life comes to us in a neat 24-hour news cycle. Worse than that, in our mobile-digital age most of us assume that news is happening every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and if we tune out (or turn off our phones) for more than a few hours (minutes?) we will be rendered out of touch and uninformed. That’s dumb.

The solution is not better news, but less of it. The problem is with the nature of news itself. The news is all about information. It’s about what’s trending now. It rarely concerns itself with the big questions of life. It focuses relentlessly on change, which, as Sommerville points out, gives it an inherent bias against conservatism and religious tradition (50-54, 60-62, 135). Our soundbite/twitter/vine/ticker-at-the-bottom-of-the-screen/countdown-clock/special-report culture of news encourage us to miss the forest of wisdom for the triviality of so many trees. As Malcolm Muggeridge once observed: if he had been a journalist in the Holy Land during Jesus’ ministry he probably would have wasted his time digging through Salome’s memoirs (54).

Of course, not all news is pointless. There are long form essays, insightful commentaries, skilled journalistic exposes, striking documentaries–all of these can come under the category of “news” and all of them, when done excellently, can point people to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Sommerville’s not even against the here-today-gone-tomorrow bits of news. Neither am I. The Lord knows–and so does the internet–that I’ve written blog posts on current events before, and every Monday I post two or three minutes of silliness, for no reason except to laugh a little. The news doesn’t have to make us dumb, but if we don’t take the necessary mental and habitual precautions it almost certainly will.

Constant attention to the news will not remind us of the weight of glory. We will end up expending our emotional and intellectual energy on a thousand things that prove to be unimportant. Let your weekly magazine sit for three months; you won’t care to read half of what’s in there. No one wants to read yesterday’s paper. It’s old news. More than that, most of it is insignificant news. Not insignificant to the people in the middle of the latest tragedy or travesty, but insignificant in the scope of human history and nothing more than background noise for your crazy busy life. Go read Time from six years ago, or six months ago or six weeks ago, and you’ll be amazed how little of what’s in there even matters any more.

How the News Works

Christians talk a lot about having a world and life view whereby we can discern the news from a biblical perspective. That’s a wonderful goal, so long as we are discerning about all the subtle ways the nature of news itself distorts our view of reality.

  • The news exaggerates the extent of disaster in the world. Scandal sells. Tragedy sells. Controversy sells. Sure, the nightly news may end with a 60 second feel-good story or a funny YouTube clip, but the constant drumbeat of the news is bad news. The news reports on murders, abuse, war, disease, shootings, hurricanes, safety recalls, and airline crashes with complete disregard for whether these bad things have actually been getting better. Did you know that the rate of domestic violence related arrests in the NFL has decreased under Roger Goodell? Did you know that NFL players are half as likely to commit domestic violence as men in their 20’s in the general population? Everyone agrees a two-game suspension was woefully inadequate, and we all know what Ray Rice did was reprehensible.  What we don’t know is how many athletes consistently do the right thing or how to place this incident into a larger framework.
  • The news entices us into over reactions. Don’t waste a crisis, right? Anytime something breakdown or someone cracks up you will hear plaintive cries–some well-intentioned, others manipulative–to do something, anything, right now!! Especially in the frothing world that is the Twitterverse, we are expected to respond immediately to whatever might the scandal du jour. And if you don’t do something–and by that I mean, if you don’t call on someone else to do something–then you are bound to be this week’s social media pariah. As Sommerville notes wryly, “Of course news is not authorized to offer forgiveness, but it compensates by inviting us to join in blaming others” (121).
  • The news over-emphasizes the role government should play our lives. This is true whether you get your news from the leftwing or the rightwing because so much of the news is about politics. In fact, oftentimes the political class and the media class act as if the other is only reality worth noticing: politicians strategize to win the 24-news cycles; media outlets talk incessantly about the latest political dish (64). And when they talk politics, it’s rarely about the “first things” behind our political disputes. It’s about outrage, opinion polls, who’s hot and who’s not in Washington. Politics has become a perpetual campaign, and most of the reporting is about the horse race not the horses. The ceaseless energy spent reporting on politics reinforces the erroneous notion that government is the proper focus of our attention and the entity most likely to solve our problems (77).

“Well,” you may say, “I don’t care if the news is fundamentally flawed. How else am I supposed to know what is going on? I don’t want to be ignorant about the state of the world.” But you already are. Even if the news is accurate—and Sommerville provides dozens of examples of major papers trumpeting exactly opposite headlines on the same day, sometimes within the same paper—how could it possibly keep us truly informed about two hundred nations and seven billion people? This is one of Sommerville’s most powerful points: “It turns out being informed really means knowing what the people around you are talking about. Our reality is the news, not the world” (43).

The news doesn’t keep anything before us for long. Are the racial tensions exposed by Ferguson no longer an important issue in our country? Of course not, but most people will quickly move on to something else because the news will move us to something else. In the world of news there is little proportion. Today there will be breaking news, special alerts, and another must-read. How can we possibly know what really matters when everything matters to the very utmost every day? “News is addictive, and if we want to regain an active intelligence, it will mean getting over the idea that news keeps us informed in any grown-up sense of that term” (131). We are already ignoring virtually everything happening in the world. So if we have to ignore something, let’s work hard to make sure it’s the ephemeral and not the eternal.

Putting First Things First

So what’s the answer? How do we prevent the news from making us dumb?

Sommerville does not argue for a complete repudiation of the news, and neither do I. But we must keep the news in its place. Most of us would do well to read the news less often. We would be wiser, happier, and more useful if we read more books and fewer blogs, if we read older stuff, if we read the good stuff—the lasting stuff—first instead of last. Put down the phone and pick up a book. Get more worked up about the Bible and less worked up about this afternoon’s internet brouhaha.

And for those of us who blog, let’s make sure it’s not all Duck Dynasty, Miley Cyrus, and the latest slice of evangelical gossip. I’ve written plenty about hot topics from homosexuality to Hobby Lobby to the emergent church. But hopefully there’s something of lasting biblical reflection in those posts, and hopefully there’s much more to the blog than pop culture and current events. If nothing on my blog could be useful outside America and nothing will be worth re-reading a year from now, then I am of all bloggers most to be pitied. Popular perhaps, but not, in the long run, particularly helpful.

I’m not against sports and entertainment. I’m not against political punditry and cultural commentary. I’m not against all news. As gospel people we are great lovers of good news! But unless we see what the modern phenomenon of news is and what it does and what it conditions us to expect, we will be unthinking in our consumption of the news and unreflective in our digestion of the same. The news will make us dumb unless we are smart enough to merely nibble on it as snack and look for our daily sustenance somewhere else.

After writing this post, a mutual friend pointed out that Joe Carter has also written on this topic. I commend his reflections to you as well.

Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition; this article is reprinted with his permission.

Posted on November 3, 2014