No, you’re not paranoid, the media really is out to get Christians. In his book How the News Makes Us Dumb, C. John Sommerville argues that news by its very nature is incapable of portraying Christians (or any conservatives) positively.
He also insists that reading the daily news is bad for our brains, and that news media is beyond repair. Instead of reading the news, Sommerville wants people to stay informed by reading books.
Fluff, fluff and more fluff
But how could following the news make us dumb? The news is filled with important events from around the world. Shouldn’t we know stuff like that?
There are a few reasons to think, no, it isn’t important at all. As Sommerville notes, “Important people don’t like to be in the news.” The people out there actually getting things done don’t have time to deal with the press. Celebrities on the other hand, love to be covered, and so they are. Instead of leaders of industry we hear all about TV and movie stars. We might watch the news to keep abreast of important issues, but all too often we hear celebrity gossip instead. Our brains grow fat and flabby hearing about President Trump’s latest tweet or Beyonce’s latest publicity stunt.
Our daily dose of news is also time consuming. Many of us feel compelled to read or watch the news daily but we don’t feel the same compulsion for daily study in other fields like science, history, or sometimes even the Bible! How many people spend as much time on their Bible study as their news intake?
The daily nature of news also undermines its importance. News doesn’t occur regularly; it occurs in erratic spurts. However, reporters have to provide news on a daily or even hourly basis, even if nothing is happening. Busy news day or not, a newspaper will still have to be delivered the next day, and the evening news will still have to last a full hour. So a story that was too insignificant to broadcast one day can suddenly become the lead story on a slow day. It wasn’t important 24-hours ago, but now it’s trumpeted as something we absolutely need to know.
You’ll also never hear life’s big questions, the really important ones, answered on the news. Why are we all here? What does it all mean? The important questions in life are simply beyond 20-second sound bites, and 400-word articles.
Novelty-focus is inherently anti-Christian
Of course, if the media ever did answer the big questions they would put themselves out of work. Why would anyone tune in the next day? And so instead of focussing on important matters, the media focuses on change.
It’s this focus on change that makes the media unavoidably anti-Christian. Churches that have held steadfastly to the word of God, and haven’t changed, don’t appear anywhere in our news. The churches making radical changes – ordaining homosexual priests, or denying the existence of God, or endorsing transsexuality – these churches can even make the headlines.
Of course, this bias isn’t aimed specifically at the churches. It is actually a broader anti-conservative bias. Conservatives, by their very nature want to conserve, and preserve things the way they are. Conservatives don’t like change. By focusing on change the media has turned itself into an anti-conservative organization. This is one of the reasons why Sommerville thinks the media is beyond repair.
Entertainment, not information
Many news broadcasts end with a feel-good story about some lost puppy finding their way home, or maybe a story about a panda birth at the zoo. We all recognize the entertainment nature of this type of new s, but do we recognize that even hard news has the same entertainment focus?
Just think about how the media reports scandals. Day after day we hear just a little bit more, but we never hear it all. Sommerville calls it news as a “striptease.” He notes that, “the last thing news people want to do is end a good story….The longer it takes the more news gets sold.” And when there is nothing new to report, the investigation itself often becomes the story. Sommerville blames us for this type of feeding frenzy mentality. He says if we really just wanted the truth we would wait for the investigation to conclude and then read a book about it.
Why a book? Because a book has the space to provide the depth that the news media misses. The daily nature of media means they can’t offer real analysis because they don’t have the time. Sommerville offers a number of contrasting headlines throughout his book to make this point (these are old examples, but familiar newspapers):
“Prosperity Eludes Grenada 5 Years After Invasion” – Washington Post, Oct. 25, 1988
“5 Years Later, Grenada Is Tranquil and Thriving” – New York Times, same day
“In Autos, U.S., Makes Strides” – New York Times, March 24, 1989
“U.S. Vehicle Sales Are Sluggish” – same paper, same day
“Scores on College Entrance Tests Fall” – Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 1989
“SAT Scores End ‘80s Up” – USA Today same day
“Minority Students Gain on College Entrance Tests” – New York Times, same day
“SAT Scores Take Dip for Women, Minorities” – Westchester-Rockland Daily News, same day
Which of these media outlets got it right? If you’re relying on them to keep you informed – if you’re relying on their analysis – then you’re obviously in trouble.
Instant analysis is going to be hit and miss
The emphasis on immediacy and up-to-the-minute reports guarantees that news will be over-hyped. Remember the Ebola outbreak in 2014? It was constant coverage for months as the media explored what might happen if Ebola broke out in North America. In total, two people on this continent died. But the constant and terrifying coverage kept people tuned into their news feeds.
The need for speed also leads to the use of shorter words in headlines. Sommerville uses the example of the word “cut” (as in “Budget Cut”) in his book. It’s a short word, and it gets the reader’s attention but it doesn’t always mean what the reader thinks. Some cuts are merely lower than average increases!
When we consider how many people now get their news just from reading headlines, the ambiguity these short words add to headlines really “cuts” into the actual information we receive.
The harm done
All these problems undermine the informative nature of news, but can watching or reading the news actually harm us?
Well, we’ve already seen how the media’s focus on change promotes anti-Christian ideals. The same holds true when the media pretends to be unbiased. All these panel discussions with one person “for” and another person there to represent the “against.” There can be a benefit to having two people on opposites sides debate an issue (Prov. 18:17). Just imagine what would result if we had a pro-choice and pro-life representative really debate the issue of abortion. Lies could be exposed, the truth could be presented – wouldn’t that be wonderful! But the segments we see on the nightly news don’t allow the time for any sort of fruitful discussion. What we see is simply quarreling – fighting for fighting’s sake (or, rather, for entertainment’s sake) – which God warns us against (2 Tim 2:23-24, Prov. 20:3). This is a reason why reading books is a better idea. In a book we have the space to really explore an issue, and have the truth come out.
If the media was truly unbiased it would seek the truth; instead it seeks disagreement. And in doing so, in pitting two sides against one, giving them equal time, they leave the impression that the two viewpoints are both valid, and that there is no absolute truth. This again is in direct opposition to our Christian worldview.
The news media also hurt our governments. While the media likes to promote itself as a watchdog carefully monitoring the government for us, the truth is quite different. An effective government that goes about its business and doesn’t change too much, and doesn’t hand out much money will never make the news…until they mess up something. Then they’ll make the news but for all the wrong reasons. Voters will hear about the scandal, but they won’t know anything about all the quiet good the government has done in the past.
To counter this negative publicity the government will become more inclined to change things and start handing out money. And if they hand out enough money, and pass enough laws, maybe the public will forget about the scandal.
And so the media, by their very nature, encourage big interfering governments.
When I started reading Sommerville’s How the News Makes Us Dumb, I was also reading four newspapers a day. That didn’t leave me with much time to read anything else so it took me almost three weeks to read the first half of the book. At the halfway mark I cut down to only one paper a day and managed to finish the book in another couple of days.
I’m still a news addict, so I still check out the news online every day, but by cutting down my news intake I have found more time to read better material. Sommerville also forced me to evaluate the news I do read in a much more critical light. I would recommend his book as a must read for anyone addicted to their daily dose of news.
A version of this article was first published in 2000, under the headline, “Don’t read a newspaper, read a book.” And yes, the author does realize the irony of writing an article that encourages readers to read less articles. This is a follow-up to Michael Medved’s article Don’t watch the news, read it!