“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 never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Walden
Funny thing is, Thoreau already knew Horace Greeley, influential publisher of the New York Tribune. Greeley became an important promoter of Thoreau’s work, and Thoreau subscribed to the weekly edition of the Tribune and even read it most of the time. So don’t take him too literally here.
But if you read the news, or worse yet watch it on TV, you know exactly what he’s talking about. He goes on to say:
“There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy.”
Today we have the same thing, only with a shorter and more ubiquitous news cycle, one that is increasingly driven by video. In April 2013, The Guardian published a provocative essay by Rolf Dobelli under the headline, “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.”
Which is a surprising thing to read in a newspaper.
News, Dobelli writes,
“is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind.”
He challenges news junkies: “Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.” News is mainly an interruption, a distraction, a creativity killer – because creativity requires extended focus and concentration. What’s more, because news focuses on the sensational, it tends to distort reality:
“News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated… The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect.”
It’s important to clarify what Dobelli is not saying. He’s not advising people to pay no attention to what’s happening in the world. He’s arguing that the short form, up-to-the-minute style of breaking news is largely a waste of time that makes it more difficult to understand what’s really going on. He writes:
“Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.”
Dobelli writes in a polemical style. As you can tell from the quotes above, his writing is punchy and a bit hyperbolic (which reminds me a bit of a mutual friend of ours). But I think he has a point in that the constant flow of breaking news adds little to our understanding of the world. I haven’t given up on print news, and am not going to (though I think TV news is a toxic waste of time), but I am trying to limit my intake and steer toward material that takes a somewhat longer view of events.
What do you think? Are these guys right about news?
(About “A Year in Walden”)