The News Has Become Our Master, Not Our Servant

We are less informed and more upset than ever.

I saw an odd thing this morning: A man on an apartment balcony, not a few feet from where I was standing, was listening to the news on the radio.

By listening, I mean that he was listening purposefully, not passively. At 7 a.m., he switched the set on. For seven minutes he was hooked. And then, upon the show’s conclusion, he immediately switched it off. He listened to the news the old-fashioned way.

Few of us do this anymore — at least, few within my orbit. Today, the news is constant and ubiquitous. Walk through an airport and you’ll see CNN every 25 feet. Fire up any website and the snippets come marching your way. In houses around the land, adults use cable to babysit themselves. Are they really watching? Half-watching, maybe. Or perhaps one-third. For the most part it’s background noise, there to be badly remembered; a well-known motif from a poorly known symphony.

How odd that abundance has led to fragmentation and to vagueness. “I heard something earlier,” people say, “but I wasn’t really listening. It was about North Carolina I think. And Obama.” Or: “I saw something on Twitter but I wasn’t sure of the context. You can’t trust anyone these days.”

Names and places wash over us. “Aleppo.” “The Fourth Circuit.” “Dropbox.” Where are they? What are they? As a child, it could be bewildering. Driving with my parents I’d hear strange things on the midday news. The Tamil Tigers were gorillas? We were fighting Iraq with Falcons and Warthogs? The prime minister was whipping his colleagues? Alarming, to say the least.

Social media has hindered, not helped, our understanding. Outlets now write headlines designed for those who don’t click; at best they exaggerate, at worst they mislead. The first hours of any major event yield confusions that linger for those who log off before clarity arrives. Curation, that great boon to advertisers and partisans, is little more now than a means by which the incurious can avoid a large part of the truth. “Hillary did what? I hadn’t heard. But have you seen the latest headlines at ThinkProgress?”

Everything is “Breaking!” — even the most trivial of scoops.

Filling airtime is tough. The theory of 24/7 news is that everything can be covered. The reality: That the same things are covered ad nauseam. “Do we know any more, Susan?” “Not at this time, John.” And so the speculation begins, from seven different locations. It is conjecture, not investigation, that has filled the dead air. Are we more informed or are we more upset? 

Everything is “Breaking!” — even the most trivial of scoops. Mike Pence is getting a haircut! Donald Trump is holding a rally! President Obama is taking a walk! Will the excitement never end? Stay tuned after a few words from our sponsors, and you can hear us guess where he’s going. 

Haste leads to panic, and panic to hyperbole, and hyperbole to regret. It is telling just how much of our news today is about the news itself. “Someone said this, what do you think about that? And what does the crowd think of what he thinks about that?” Abraham Lincoln grasped the power of the delay: If he wrote a letter angry, he’d leave it in a drawer overnight — that way, the sunlight could judge its wisdom. Could he do this on cable? On Twitter? By text? It’s unlikely. Too much silence these days and someone thinks something is wrong. “Are you mad at me?” “Can I call?” “Have you heard from James this afternoon?” “Is there drama in the White House? This account I’ve found says yes.”

Is the news our servant or our master? A reflection or an instigation? So often now, the latter is the case. But on the balcony, it was different. There, with a small piece of 19th-century technology, a man sat and reconquered the wilderness. And then, unaware of his victory, he went for a walk.


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