Thoreau was Right About the News

Thoreau wrote in Walden

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. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.

I have only very recently begun to understand how right Thoreau was. I used to tease my wife over her ignorance of current events. She protested that they were unimportant; I simply couldn’t fathom how she could have that opinion.

I almost never watch TV anymore, but the other day I needed to watch the local evening news for some reason. I hadn’t watched the news in a long time. There’s little reason, since I have broadband internet access at home and at work. I can get dozens of headlines in a matter of minutes.

I was amazed at how fast the news was delivered. Any story was reduced to a 30 or 60 second blurb, one following the other as fast as possible. The content of the story didn’t matter – it got 30-60 seconds and that was it. The important stories, the tragic, and the banal were all mixed together. They didn’t even really bother to stop and look sad when talking about the tragic stories. I was actually glad when the weather came around because at least it was a few minutes spent talking, in some depth, about one thing.

I was also disgusted at the content of the news. A little girl in Fort Worth rode her bicycle out in front of a car being driven by an under-age teen, or something along those lines, and she was killed. The big story was that the teenager wasn’t going to be charged since the accident wasn’t his fault. All this with video clips of the grieving family. That’s just disgusting. Let these poor people grieve privately. There is no good reason for me to have watched that. Especially not considering how it was treated – a 60 second clip between two banal pieces.

That’s kind of made me realize how utterly worthless the news I get from Drudge, Fox, CNS, CNN, and ABC is, all coming in over the web.

For instance, here are the headlines right now from Drudge:

# Paula Abdul may be dropped from “American Idol”.
# Lynndie England will plead guilty.
# MSNBC might be changing its name.
# The “runaway bride” from a few days ago might be charged criminally. Sean Hannity will interview her fiance tonight at 9.
# A monster burrito threw a school into a panic because someone saw it wrapped up and was concerned it might be a weapon.
# Linkin Park (I guess that’s a musician?) is demanding to be released from (his? her? their?) contract with Warner.
# Lobbyists paid for trips for a Congressman.
# Interest rates are moving up.
# North Korea fired a missle into the Sea of Japan
# Tony Blair wants to improve UK’s nukes
# California wants to ban pet cloning
# Paris Hilton wants to be taken seriously
# A German/Jewish comedy has won an award
# Laura Bush is not quite the gentlelady we thought
# Italian media releases the details of some deaths in Iraq
# Iraq’s oil production is down
# A boy’s cell phone exploded in his pocket and burned him
# The Vatican is still against sodomite “marriage”
# Republicans still think PBS is liberal and are pressuring PBS to change

Ummm…. woop-de-do. The headlines that are even vaguely important are the one about interest rates, and the one about North Korea. Maybe the two about Iraq and the one about PBS.

My biggest realization is not that many of these stories are unimportant. In fact, many of them _are_ important – but only as parts of a whole. If cell phone batteries are even a little bit likely to explode, we need to know about that. But we _don’t_ need to know about the 10 year old boy whose cell phone exploded. It’s simply not important to me. I am glad he’s OK and I hope there are no scars or other damage, but it’s really not headline news.

The Lynndie England story is important, but only as part of the larger Abu Ghraib story – or maybe that is only important as part of the larger Iraq story. In any case, I don’t care if she pleads guilty or not.

The burrito story is funny, but hardly newsworthy.

Anything with Paris Hilton’s name is not news.

Drudge may be an easy target, but a quick glance at Fox, CNN, and ABC reveal that they are not a whole lot better.

I think it would be far better for us to say fewer things, but think and say more about them. Time is a good filter. If nobody will care next week, it’s pretty much unimportant. The things that are still important next week, next month, next year, are worth more than a 60 second blurb or a 10 paragraph story.

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3 Responses to Thoreau was Right About the News

  1. Kyle says:

    Ironically, jollyblogger recently posted about information overload that keeps him from saying anything. Never knew aporia could be so good!

  2. Mr. Drudge, whose articles often read like gossip columns, is more of an entertainer than a news reporter. There seems to be more and more entertainers out there who are pretending to be journalists and pundits these days. But we cannot ignore the fact that such people have large audiences.

    We get the media that we ask for and deserve and we are not going to get a better signal to noise ratio until more people demand that news be separated from entertainment. But don’t look for this to happen until the voracious national appetite for gossip and lurid true stories — some people call this “infotainment” — subsides.

    All we can really do in the meantime is to employ our personal discretion — as you have outlined in your post — in choosing the sort of news reporting we prefer.

  3. Robert says:

    Margaret, I think causal lines are hard to draw. I would argue that technology, coupled with certain economic factors, virtually _demands_ this sort of “infotainment”. What’s more, the type of media we consume actually changes our expectations and whets our appetite for certain forms of communication. Neil Postman makes this point very well in Amusing Ourselves to Death. I recommend the book.

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