What are the news media for? The typical response is that their prime function is dispensing information. They provide us with what we need to know in order to successfully operate in the modern world.
Perhaps the media do perform this function, at least partially. Certainly some of what is reported in the daily news has some role in helping us to make appropriate decisions about our lives. Weather forecasts are an aid in planning travel. Political reporting, at least in principle, might help us to make decisions about how to vote and otherwise act as democratic citizens.
But what is the main function of contemporary news media, if we are talking about their demonstrable effects most of the time on most of their audience?
It is to depress you, to make you feel constantly that the world is in the process of falling apart.
To alert you that you can’t go on vacation anymore because air travel is destroying the planet.
To tell you that your air conditioner is the root of all evil and that you will have to roast in the unbearable heat if you are a good person.
To inform you that everything you do contributes to structural racism and oppression.
To tell you how the markets are all doomed and your retirement account is probably going to disappear before you retire.
To inform you that the planet is going to be as hot as the sun in just a few years, and all life will disappear.
To describe to you how “forever chemicals” are everywhere and probably making your children incapable of having your grandchildren right now.
In short, the news media are there to let you know how every day, every hour, and every minute you should be terrified and outraged and obsessed to the point of being unable to experience any happiness save in the form of malevolent wishes for those you are told are the cause of all the misery and evil the media endlessly reiterate to you.
Listen to CNN and NPR and the rest of them—and, for that matter, listen to (or read) much of the media that purports to criticize these left-leaning sources from a position on the apocalyptic right—and try to find stories that do not fit the same depressing mold.
Look for any stories about people doing good things for one another, or about the hope and love in the hearts of many of us, or about the glory of waking to see another day, or about how the spiritual beliefs of most of the people on earth provide them solace in the face of grief and confidence in the face of finitude.
Of course, there is no shortage of news media, and so now and again, such uplifting stories can be found. But do the math. Those fleeting accounts of joyful experience in the here-and-now and of the future as eternal promise and hope are buried a thousand miles below the avalanche of despair, agonized fury, and impotence.
One of our great forebears, Henry David Thoreau, hated the news media of his time, which he described as “the gurgling of the sewer.” Somehow, it is even worse than that today. I frequently imbibe this fetid material in order to write critically about it. But I would be lying if I said I don’t often feel like I’m willingly exposing myself to a deadly pathogen when I’m doing it.
Is there anything to be done in response to the poison of the news media, short of, like Thoreau, moving out to the woods to build a log cabin and spend our days observing flora and fauna? (Though that mightn’t be such a bad thing.)
Even if one does not decide to emulate the author of Walden by retreating to the wilderness, decreasing exposure to the toxins might be a healthy move, individually and for the entire culture. William Safire’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” crave nothing more than your attention, and spreading their plague absolutely requires it.
Perhaps just, for each of us, a few minutes fewer every day bathed in the glow of a screen that emanates the doomsday declarations of the “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” (another hat tip to Safire) would be enough to gird us for successful battle against their warped worldview.
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