Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Media bias
A call for Christian journalists: an interview (of sorts) with Marvin Olasky
People we should know
Pieter Jongeling (1909-1985): husband, father, Nazi-fighter, prisoner, Member of Parliament, children’s author…and Reformed journalist
Don’t watch the news, read it!
This first appeared in Reformed Perspective in 2000, and yet the thesis of this article is just as relevant for today's Internet Age, as entertainment is an even bigger part of the news now. ***** Entertainment is the news. When the hit television series Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, all the major networks ran lengthy stories. The Hollywood press conference that announces the nominees for the Academy Awards receives coverage comparable to the president’s “State of the Union” address. And the box office tallies of the sequels to Jurassic Park and Star Wars become major network news stories. In this day and age of giant conglomerates, a number of networks are now owned and operated by film studios, but there is no grand media conspiracy. There are plenty of independent news sources that provide competition. So who is responsible for the triumph of “infotainment” over information? It is us, the consumers of news. We allow television to be our main source of news, and this leads to three critical distortions in our lives. 1. Self-pity Television news encourages self-pity. TV spokesmen talk a lot about the importance of the “news business,” but what they really mean is the “bad news business.” Except in small doses, good news simply doesn’t make for good television. The tube inevitably emphasizes violence, mayhem, death, destruction – it doesn’t matter if we are talking about battles, riots, train wrecks, or hurricanes – as long as it is visual, dramatic, and compelling. That is why news producers love wars and natural disasters. Bad news is not only the lifeblood of the major networks but also the local news stations across the nation. A USA Today survey indicates that 73 per cent of the lead stories they air are devoted to coverage of some kind of natural disaster or violence. Bad news literally drives out good news. To understand why this happens, try putting yourself in the position of a television news director. How do you make your show gripping? Do you show a computerized graph on the declining national crime rate or live footage of an elementary school shooting? Do you interview a small business owner who has created 100 new jobs in the plumbing industry or an environmental activist who claims to have proof of a deadly new toxic threat? Do you run a lead story about a Detroit janitor who moonlights as a cabdriver so he can send his five children to a Christian school? Do you tell your cameramen to zoom in when he arrives home late at night, kisses his sons and daughters as they lie sleeping, and asks God’s blessing on them? It happens every night in Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Los Angeles, and New York. But is it news? Never! What if the same janitor arrives home and something snaps? He gets a pistol from the closet shoots his children, and then shoots himself. You don’t have to think about whether to run this story. Your decision is automatic: “If it bleeds, it leads.” 2. Shortened attention span Television news encourages a short attention span and a lack of perspective. Forget about nuclear wars and germ warfare. The most destructive invention of the 20th century is the remote control. Channels magazine notes that the average adult male (who wins the gender and age battle over possession of the remote in most American households) changes stations every 19 minutes. If this keeps up, “channel surfing” will soon be an Olympic sport. Imagine once again that you are a news director. You know that most guys are incapable of watching a half-hour program. How do you respond? By changing the entire nature of television in a desperate bid to keep viewers riveted. In the 1950s a typical camera shot lasted 35-50 seconds. In the 1990s it lasts 5 seconds. Commercials are even more frenetic, often switching images after only one second. Television sound bites have also been reduced to the point of absurdity. Forget about the interview subject who tells you what he thinks about the state of the economy of the defense budget in 25 words of less – you have to find someone who can do it in three words – and they better be pretty titillating, or they won’t make it onto the evening news. Titillation is the new and ultimate entitlement of television viewers. We want to be excited by what we watch. It doesn’t matter if topics are presented in a thoughtful and thorough manner, just as long as we aren’t bored. Who among us would tune into a broadcast of the Lincoln-Douglas debates today? We ought to remember what life was like before television. In 1858, 20,000 residents of Freeport, Illinois, heard presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas speak for four hours without microphones, teleprompters or commercial breaks. In city after city, Lincoln and Douglas grappled with consequential issues, and they attracted huge audiences of ordinary citizens – farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, housewives, and even school children. Today, they would be hard-pressed to get an hour of airtime on PBS and even if they did their Nielsen ratings would be abysmal. 3. Superficiality and subjectivity Our love affair with television has led to an obsession with appearance. Look at the current crop of anchormen and anchorwomen. Do you think they were chosen to read the news because they were at the top of their class in journalism school? Everything on television, even the “truth,” is subordinate to appearance. Television is all about surface impressions and this means that intentions, feelings and desires take precedence over logic, substance and reality. Worse yet, television news infects viewers with what I call the “do-something disease.” It presents alarming stories about every imaginable tragedy – famine, cancer, illiteracy, pollution, you name it – and encourages viewers to feel that they should do something right away. It doesn’t matter if they can’t solve these problems. What does matter is they will feel a whole lot better. Stop watching and start reading Self-pity, lack of focus, superficiality, subjectivity – how do we deal with these? Do we try to improve the quality of television news, to make the medium work for us instead of against us? Certainly that is an important and worthwhile effort. It isn’t the ultimate solution, however, because the fundamental problem isn’t a lack of quality programming. We now sit in front of the “boob tube,” 28 hours a week. We spend more time watching television than we do pursuing our careers, since we don’t retire, or take vacations, sick days, or weekends off from our favorite programs. We also spend more time watching television than we do reading to ourselves or to our children. Best-selling novelist Larry Wolwode is right. Television is the “Cyclops who eats books.” When it comes to the news, this one-eyed monster also has an insatiable appetite for newspapers and magazines. But Cyclops in not all-powerful. We can defeat him Unlike the Greeks, we don’t need clever tricks or deception. Armed only with our remote controls, we can turn off this giant glowing eye. Nearly all Americans say they want to cut down on TV viewing. Where is the best place to begin? By eliminating the time you spend on television news. Most material on the tube doesn’t pretend to reflect reality, but news broadcasts do, so they are particularly, potently poisonous. The hour you spend each night watching local and network news could easily be redirected to reviewing not one but two newspapers in their entirety. Sure, print journalism has its own biases, but because of the way we read and comprehend it, we are more capable of compensating. Reinvesting your time in this way may not instantly change the world, but it can change your world and the way you respond to reality. And like and wisely planned reasoned investment it can pay long-term dividends. Reprinted by permission, from IMPRIMIS the monthly journal of Hillsdale College. Be sure to check out the "sequel" to this piece, Don't read the news, read a book....
Don’t read the news, read a book!
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. Conclusion 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!...