Since the devastation and tragedy that Katrina wreaked on New Orleans and the United States, and I’m alluding to something more than the horrible effects of the natural disaster – see national media and governmental irresponsibility – I have practiced a self-imposed media fast.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The man who never looks into a newspaper (and in today’s society, I would add television media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, etc.) is better informed than he who reads them (or watches them), inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
Following Dr. Steven Sample’s (President of USC) example, I have stopped reading all newspapers and newsmagazines and I do not watch the national or local television news. The television part was no huge sacrifice, since I had stopped watching all TV except sports and LOST several years before. I might add that I do make an occasional exception for local weather reports. This news fast has lasted almost five years.
This fast has produced some interesting findings:
1) Much like Dr. Sample, I realized a newfound sense of freedom and autonomy. Also like Dr. Sample, “I realized that I (along with nearly everyone else in America) had become addicted to the mainstream media, and that I had given over a huge portion of my intellectual independence to a group of reporters and editors whose core values and interests were not necessarily congruent with my own.”
2) While traveling and lecturing in universities in the remote and forgotten country of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia nine years ago, I realized that the media can be completely and irrevocably corrupt. The disturbing fact that I naturally trusted most news media began to sink in. The news I read in the papers there, even the Western papers, was not at all what was actually occurring throughout the world.Why should it be much different in the U.S.?
3) I was also stunned to find out that within hours, and now with the advent of Twitter, minutes of a story appearing in the mainstream media, I was often better informed about the facts than my friends who are still addicted to reading newspapers and watching national television media outlets. I was receiving my news from people whose biases were known to me, and affinity groups and social networks who had my best interests at heart.
4) People love to tell me about the latest news. When a friend asks, “Randy, have you heard about…?” All I need say is, “No, I haven’t, please tell me about it.” My friends always jump at the chance to be the first to inform me of breaking news. The beautiful thing about this – my friends will combine all they’ve read and watched on myriad news outlets, filter it through their personal passions and prejudices (of which I am familiar) and apply it to their own good judgment to come up with what they believe to be the truest account of the incident in question. So after two or three friends provide me their rendition, it makes sense that my grasp of the breaking news is more complete and accurate than any of my colleagues or competitors.
5) I maintained my intellectual independence and did not let talking heads decide for me what was important and what I should ignore.
6) There is a strong herd instinct in the news media. Our flood in Nashville perfectly proves this point. Because the flood was not important to one news outlet, all of a sudden, it was not important to any national news outlets. I had friends from Florida call me today, that still had not heard or seen any comprehensive reporting about our flood – one of the greatest natural disasters to ever hit America. This tendency for conformity in journalism presents a real and present danger to leaders.
7) News outlets often get the facts wrong. When one truly knows the inside of a story, as we Nashvillians did last week, this fact really hits home.
8) I know now that when I read newspapers or watch CNN, Fox News, etc., I do so for entertainment purposes only.
9) After a few months of the media fast, when watching a national television news outlet in a bar while waiting for an lunch appointment to arrive, it dawned on me that I felt much like when watching a local used car pitch man scream at me. Even though the national anchor person was much more refined, the shock factor and sensationalism was eerily the same.
I realize with Mr. Jefferson that the person in 2010 who reads and watches no news media at all may in fact be better informed than the person who is addicted to the news.
One very good outcome from this terrible disaster, the Nashville 2010 flood, may be that we all have a wake-up call about the extraordinary shortcomings of our national media – and the tremendous breaking news benefits and potential of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter where real people report real facts in real-time.