How to (Not) Read the News

I’ve been trying to meditate in the morning, just for like ten minutes. Just a little bit of silence and stillness at one point in the day. It helps remind me that the madness I experience inside and out is not who I am or what the world is. Not entirely, not all the time. The silence also exists. The stillness is also possible.

It’s tough, though, because of course the internet is awake and wants to share its nightmares with me. President Orange is the New Black is awake and spitting blood at whichever brown people were mentioned to him most recently. The 24-hour news cycle has not been to bed in twenty years and has spent the night adding exciting graphics to the newest hostile tweet and paging pundits to deplore it. Like a cokehead roommate, CNN pounds on my door, full of bright ideas, bushy-tailed with fear and froth, and oh by the way do you have any cash?

I can’t, guys. I just can’t with this. I have a lot of problems with how journalism works now, which is why I never became a journalist in the classic sense (although hey, if Tomi Lahren is a journalist, I guess we are all journalists on this blessed day!) But it’s not just an ideological issue I have, it’s also a mental one. I have anxiety, which is an unscientific term I’m here using to refer to a variety of mental issues that make me very susceptible to flipping the fuck out. “Flipping the fuck out” is an unscientific term I’m here using to refer to “being unable to manage my own life because every source of news is constantly screaming at me about how everything is horrible forever.”

The fact is that our brains evolved (very recently from a biological perspective) to manage social groups of no more than 150 individuals and physical challenges in a very limited habitat. We are simply not equipped to comfortably absorb a constant stream of brutal news about people and places far away from us. The headlines and stories are written to provoke emotion, empathy, because that’s how they get you to open your wallet, but what it’s doing to you is prodding your lizard brain, a thousand times an hour, into feeling that something bad is happening right now and you could be helping. Your brain stem doesn’t know how far away Japan is. It doesn’t know that the child weeping on the news is ten thousand miles from you and you have no concrete way to stop her tears. Even if you did, if you could send a donation this instant and know for certain that the child you see on the news would be saved, your animal brain would not connect those events — you would still feel stressed, like you did nothing to help, because you can’t see it, can’t witness your action ending her suffering.

The trouble is, a lot of horrible things do exist and occur, and these things are worthy of coverage. But the news wasn’t always this rabidly toxic, this frenetically enraged, not this constantly, not this universally, and there are reasons for that, two major ones in particular: the death of the Fairness Doctrine in the 80s, and the birth of the internet.

Whether the Fairness Doctrine could be applied to the internet with its original wording, and whether enshrining it in law through the Fairness in Broadcasting Act would have affected the tone of journalism in the 90s as the internet was becoming mainstream are “what if” questions that can’t be answered for certain now. But I think it’s foolish to discount the effect that its abolishment had on the way people view the purpose of journalism. For people who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the idea that a journalist’s primary purpose is to tell the objective truth, to make exclusively verifiable, notable information available to the public in as clear and complete a form as possible… that idea is laughable now. That’s not what a news anchor cares about. That’s not what a reporter does. That’s not what a blogger or a columnist is for.

The purpose of journalism, the job of the reporter or the news anchor, has become identical to the job of the fast-food employee: squish whatever substance is handy into a bite-sized nugget that the ravenous animals across the counter will pay for. Keep shoveling until they’re stuffed. They don’t want quality, they want quantity. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that the supply never ends.

And that’s where the internet comes in — because the internet made the 24-hour news cycle utterly psychotic, completely undiscriminating in its need for content, by subdividing that 24 hours into finer and finer slices and demanding new headlines for each. In the 80s, you needed enough news to talk about at five o’clock, some for the eleven o’clock guy to do after he recaps what you said, and then we’re good till six AM. But the goal of the internet, the clickbait gold standard, is to provide you with new things to look at every single time you refresh the page. The ad-supported model requires new headlines every second of every day. In that model, how is it possible to maintain the “notable” requirement that only Wikipedia still seems to give a shit about? In that model, how can fact-checking, source-citing, or nuance survive?

The goal of news outlets has become the same goal every capitalist institution eventually slumps into: pump out a constant stream of the cheapest crap you can, at the highest price you can get, as long as the money keeps flowing. Quality is meaningless, truth is meaningless, relevance is meaningless, ethics are meaningless. None of it matters. All that matters is what people will pay for and how much.

So… that’s all horribly depressing. I can’t solve this problem on a national scale, and just thinking about it makes me feel like never writing another word. So I don’t think about it. Instead, I established two rules for interacting with the news, and I suggest you take them on as well, for your own mental health:

1. It’s not news if it disappears in less than two days.

Everyone wants me to be up in arms about everything, all the time. My outrage is being constantly solicited — every notification is a new person bringing something they want me to be afraid of or pissed about. Then, just when I’ve worked myself up into a good snit over whatever it is, there’s a new plop of agitprop on my mat. For a while, I interrogated these people: “Who’s doing what now? Okay, but that’s illegal, so surely someone put a stop to it, right? Oh, they did already? Great, so… why are you telling me this again?”

The fact is, yeah, it’s bad that someone was murdered in Cleveland, I get that. But can you do anything about it? How does your knowledge of that family’s suffering relieve it in any way? How do you benefit anyone by conceding a portion of your emotional and mental energy to that tragedy, by allowing it to affect your mood and your own personal life? Is that, in fact, allowing a murderer in Cleveland to ruin your day in addition to the lives he’s ruined? What purpose does that serve? Why did the news tell you about it — what did they expect you to do with this information? Did they tell you because you needed to know? Or did they tell you because they needed something to say?

So when I see a headline, I postpone my emotional reaction. I don’t look at the pictures, I don’t read up on the issue… for two days. If two days pass and I’m still seeing articles on this subject, it’s still popping up in my feed from multiple sources, not just one shouty person who thinks it’s news… then it’s probably news. Get out of my face with headlines that read, “UGLY PUDDLE OCCUPYING MAIN STREET!” You and I both know that puddle will be gone by noon, Megyn. Get a real job.

2. It’s not news when somebody shoots off at the mouth.

This is the really important one, and it’s gonna save you a lot of time, because 99% of the fucking news these days is he-said, she-said. Ninety-nine percent of politics is theater, and it’s only gotten worse with a reality-show president who’s delighted to set up his little folding desk and autograph a memo with absolutely no legal impact, but after years in the White House still doesn’t quite know what the president actually does.

Now that the politicians have discovered Twitter, there’s no expectation that their remarks be considered or consistent, because “that’s not an official channel.” Hilariously, it’s a convenient blend of official and non-official, in that those statements will be considered newsworthy and binding when it serves the politician’s purpose, and when it doesn’t, bringing it up is totally inappropriate and how dare you suggest that a public figure should uphold the same values in online communication as they do in press releases?

Politicians love to talk about what they’re going to do. What they hope to do. What they plan to do. What they’ll do if the other guy does what he said he’d do when he hears what we said about what we said he’ll do. “If we can get the funding.” “If we can get the votes.” They posture and they preen, they talk trash with one face and promise utopia with the other, and then when things don’t work out, they justify and scramble and excuse, and none of that is news. It’s a soap opera — way too few black people, audience aged roughly 85, flogging Viagra in between dramatic pauses and white male angst.

Seriously? This is the news? Are you sure? Are you positive you didn’t just turn on ESPN? Because this kind of circlejerk about the ethereal fucking future is for sports fans and TV psychics. This is not data. This is not information about the world that anyone needs. Until someone accomplishes a task, until politicians do literally anything but piss on each other’s shoes, get the hell off my screen.

Let’s apply our new standard to today’s headlines, shall we? Let’s see how much cleaner the front page looks when we purge the non-news. Check out these headlines just from today:

  • “Trump says he called off attack on Iran 10 minutes before launch.” (Washington Times)
  • “Republicans fear campaign arm is stumbling in fight for the House”
    (Politico)
  • “Ocasio-Cortez calls migrant detention centers ‘concentration camps,’ eliciting backlash”
    (New York Times)
  • “US Democratic hopeful Booker proposes clemency for thousands of drug offenders”
    (Reuters)
  • “A pro-gun Parkland shooting survivor had his Harvard admission revoked over racist remarks”
    (Buzzfeed News)

I’ve tried to get us a range from news outlets all over the political spectrum — this issue is not partisan, it’s an issue with how we fund news and how we consume it. Let’s pick these headlines apart and see what we’re left with.

“Trump called off attack on Iran 10 minutes before launch.” Okay, so… the attack didn’t happen? How do we know the attack was going to happen? Who said so? Who approved the attack, if it was going to happen — presumably Trump, right? So is he getting praised for calling off his own operation? That seems to happen a lot with this President, and that’s not actually praiseworthy — sorry, son, you don’t get congratulations for cleaning up the mess you made yourself. Let’s rewrite this headline to accurately reflect what actually, verifiably happened this morning: “Trump said a thing about Iran.”

“Republicans fear campaign arm is stumbling in fight for the House.” All right, so what you’re saying is, some people who are Republican are concerned about the Republican party’s reelection campaign because the Republican party is too busy with, like… doing their jobs, the ones they got elected to do? So these fearful Republicans, can they affect the reelection campaign in any way? Will their fears definitely result in concrete change to the party’s strategy? Or are they saying their fears out loud, to the press, precisely because there’s nothing else they can do to control the outcome but talk? And if that’s the case… why is this news?

“Ocasio-Cortez calls migrant detention centers ‘concentration camps,’ eliciting backlash.” Now, I like AOC, that’s probably obvious to you. I don’t try to hide my own bias and I like that she said this. But this is still not fucking news. This headline indicates that a representative used a phrase to refer to a thing, and that made some people mad. AOC using that phrase doesn’t somehow grant her more power to affect the plight of migrants, it isn’t a change in her position or direction on this issue, and the backlash isn’t a new or thrilling dimension in the ongoing discussion of immigration — the Hitler references have been going on for a couple years now, and it’s an emotional argument on both sides, not one that’s intended to spark nuanced debate. So… why exactly is this news? How is this helping the kids in those cages?

“US Democratic hopeful Booker proposes clemency for thousands of drug offenders.” Here’s where this policy of mine becomes really useful, because if you ignore the promises people pull out of their asses when they’re trying to get elected, you can ignore 99% of the campaign. The fact is that when a politician keeps even one of their campaign promises, it’s so startling that we remark upon it. So why should I listen to a goddamn thing they say on the campaign trail? Booker, that’s a great idea you’ve got there. Do you have any actual idea how you’d fund and enforce this plan of yours? Do you have a way to definitely get it past Congress, along with a way to definitely get elected president so your great ideas matter at all? Well, no, of course not, because we’re not there yet and these issues are complicated. So why are we talking about it at all? Why should I praise you for telling me you’d definitely solve a problem if I gave you the means to solve it?

“A pro-gun Parkland shooting survivor had his Harvard admission revoked over racist remarks.” Hey look! — actual news. You might look at it and think, “oh, it’s news about something somebody said.” But it’s not, see? Something happened. Somebody said a thing, yes, and somebody else got mad about the thing they said, but then that second person did a thing about it. This headline isn’t, “Harvard Dean says Parkland shooting survivor is a huge dick for being racist,” because that’s not news. The news is: “Institutional consequences for racism occur in an area (academia) that has historically been very white and slow to accept social change.” That’s real! It’s an event that unquestionably occurred, and we’ve got the info about it.

So now that we’ve been through the front page and stripped out the non-news, what do we have left? What things went on today that I need to know about?

  • “A pro-gun Parkland shooting survivor had his Harvard admission revoked over racist remarks.”

Look at that, the news is all good today! I can go to work with a light heart. Because I’m not carrying the pile of anxiety and fear every news outlet would like to dump on me as part of this complete breakfast. Because conspiracy theorists can make blogs now, so we don’t have to keep pretending that they’re journalists. Because I didn’t download the daily dispatch of politicians’ fluffy wish-dreams as if it’s information. Because unreasoning fear doesn’t help anyone, even the people I’m afraid for — it only helps sell ad space.

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