I generally find the news uninteresting. That it is often sensational doesn’t make it interesting. This began for me as a high school junior when I met Henry David Thoreau. We (of course) read “Civil Disobedience” which I found ho-hum, but Walden was magical. In Walden, Thoreau writes:
“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, – we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”
My household (meaning my mom) was an avid news watcher/reader. She believed it was important to “be informed.” She read the paper from cover to cover; we subscribed to news magazines (anyone under 30 in this country has not seen Time Magazine when it was mostly words) and watched the news twice each day — that was as often as it could be watched in the 60s, by the way. The radio was on most of the time with hourly news reports.
“Watch the news,” she said. “You need to know what’s going on. It’s going to be your turn to take over the world soon.” With teenage cockiness I simply replied that I would be the news. 🙂 But just as she had little life of her own, she knew little about mine. Instead of knowing about me, she knew what the news said about “teenagers today.”
These were pretty wild days in the news. The goal of the news at that time really was to tell and show. The US government had not yet discovered the result of broadcasting facts — real facts — and the Viet Nam War in all it’s gory glory was on television as were street riots over race, the draft and the right for young people to vote. The result of those years on broadcast media is that the Gulf War was more like a TV show than a war, complete with a theme song and opening graphics. It’s even worse now… The effect of the news on many people is to render them impotent to act in their own lives. “What’s the point of voting?” for example. Well, if they knew that the news is an illusion and nothing but marketing and propaganda, they might realize that their vote IS the one thing that they can do that does matter (unless it’s GWB and it’s Florida or Ohio).
So, at seventeen, I put a permanent boycott on the news, a boycott I have seldom suspended. I decided that only the news that has direct bearing on my life is important because it affects what I may or may not be able to change. Other news? Such as the idiocy that comes out of the mouths of Presidential candidates or the relentless business of war in this country? I can’t change it. In the first case, the best I can do is vote, and in the second, the best I could do was help returning soldiers, with their fractured brains and broken hearts, find a way into life here.
The news in the United States is mostly ‘bad’ news — this point was brought home to me by my students in China. China Daily and other Chinese papers print mostly GOOD news. As my students’ English was good enough to read American newspapers — and they did — they went at our news with the bias that ALL newspapers print only the good news. If the stories in American papers were the good news from America, what a horrible place the United States must be! “Aren’t you afraid to go outside your house, teacher? You can be murdered or raped!” True. They believed this. Our way of reporting news fed right into China’s anti-American propaganda machine.
Thoreau has something to say about the ‘bad news’ obsession, too. He views news as gossip and gossip likes the juicy tid-bits of human pain and failure. In Life Without Principle Thoreau uses the example of two men sharing the news of the day, moaning about the state of affairs, leaving each other feeling a strange sense of hopelessness and triumph (which we feel when we are let off the hook yet know that should not be the case). Neither man has spoken of the “real” news of his life and what has happened between them is flat, empty and unsatisfying. Thoreau writes:
We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I did not know why my news should be so trivial, — considering what one’s dreams and expectations are, why the developments should be so paltry. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition.
The real news is not in the paper, but in our lives, thoughts, experiences and the newspaper is a distraction from both our true outer life and the even more true (to Thoreau) inner life.
I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters. It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.
Iggy Pop says it well, too. 🙂