Not Giving Up On News

you need to know what's happening to be able to do something about it

Not Giving Up On News

There’s a perspective that’s been around for a while but I’ve seen and heard more—both in-person and online—recently; that The News is bad. It goes something like this: The News is a series of events you can’t affect (and often won’t be affected by anyway), conveyed by partisan (or otherwise somehow compromised) intermediaries in such a manner as to get the maximum emotional response out of you.

While there is a fair bit of truth to this—and I think there are certain situations where this perspective’s prescriptions are worth embracing, I think it’s important not just to ask whether this is true, but if so, why it is, and if so, is "ah, sack it off" the appropriate response? I’m less interested in the “compromised intermediaries” and “maximum emotional response” stuff (to varying extents both are true, but they are also very much the bread-and-butter of most existing media critics) and more on the idea that the events portrayed on the news are something you can’t affect, or if you can’t, that knowing about it is therefore futile.

My core problem is the implicit argument it sneaks in. By focusing on the news' relationship to you specifically and your reaction, it downplays your position as a citizen and a member of society. There are many things which many not affect you, but they could affect your family, neighbours, friends, countrymen, international comrades. We do, as they say, live in a society. You are enmeshed in a network of people and while there are doubtless some threads tying you globally, most of them, and the strongest ones, are far more likely to be local. I think (obviously) that local news—though in many legacy manifestations in a parlous state—is very important. The more local things are, the more chance you will be able to affect things; the longer, proportionally, your fulcrum becomes. Campaigning on local issues, writing to your local representatives is somewhere you can really, genuinely make a difference, and a noticeable one. Caring about local things causes, making them your priority, is good, imo. Tend your own garden.

Step it up one: national issues  if national news has feeling like you can’t affect things—why is that? Why has the power to affect things been withdrawn from you? When did that happen? Who did it? Can you go after them and try and get it back? It's an enormous challenge, certainly, and not something that can be done quickly, if at all, but I think we see the results of people having been convinced that the opposite is true all around us. The more people believe that things can't be changed, the less they can be changed. Real change requires the belief of a large number of people and their collective action. I think part of the reason I react so badly to Give Up On The News is that it feels like a burial of one's head, a wilful turning-away from looking the world in the face. I'm not suggesting you engage in masochistic void-staring, forcing yourself to Confront Events to the detriment of your own mental health or anything like that, but understanding what's happening such that you know how you should orient yourself seems crucial to making change.

As for the bits of the argument I do buy, I think where I agree most with the “ignore it, or at least dial it down” prescription is largely in the case of the excessive fixation on polities other than one’s own. I think, for instance, that I pay far too much attention to US politics. It’s fun, it’s very sugary (and in my case at least I have a genuine long-running interest in American history and political history especially)—but the small-picture stuff genuinely does not, in most ways, affect me and I have very little chance of affecting it. I still think there is value to understanding the way the world works and how various global forces and trends are currently manifesting—the US is still, for better or worse, the world's pre-eminent superpower, and for various reasons has a lot of influence on events over here—but I don't really need to know what e.g. Nancy Pelosi is up to on any given week.

I think it's also important to find news sources which are, as best they can be, presenting events in as ‘emotionally un-activating’ (trying hard to find a nice way to say ‘boring’) as possible, and which present the news in, if not an unbiased way (impossible) then at least at least a consistently, explicably biased way. My preference, because I'm That Kind Of Guy, is the FT, which will reliably report stories in the most staid way possible, with a consistent but obvious slant and reporting that at least is anchored in some kind of observable reality. It is, as someone once said, written for the people who run companies and need to know what's actually happening so they can make decisions on that basis. It also has the incalculable benefit of having a toggle on the app for 'this morning's edition'—meaning I get a fixed number of stories and then it stops. I think another problem people have with The News as mediated through apps, social media, television etc is its lack of finishability.

I think, fundamentally, that a lot of what people see as an issue with news is far more entangled with its delivery than with the thing itself. I agree that there are still massive problems with the existing state of news media. I think that much political news, for instance is reported in a fundamentally un-useful, un-helpful way, and by profoundly compromised messengers. But I think that we have a duty to be engaged citizens, to try and improve the world, and to my mind the knowledge and understanding that one gains by following events is a prerequisite to doing that.

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