When news of the Boston Marathon tragedy broke, I saw it first on Twitter. For some inane reason I felt the need to turn on our television and tune to CNN. However, my father-in-law was visting, and knowing he is a FOX News guy, I reluctantly searched the DirecTV guide and tuned to the “fair and balanced” channel.
After an almost eight year news fast (I stopped consuming mainstream media news in 2005 after my disgust at the grandstanding and misreporting of Hurricane Katrina), I expected the reports to be disturbing, but I was not ready for reporters on both channels filling dead space with vivid and dispassionate descriptions of shrapnel, ball bearings and flying body parts. It was chilling. It was depressing. It was wrong.
As I apologized to my father-in-law and turned off the television, I felt dirty and used, as if I had been watching porn. I suppose you could call FOX News Christian porn. Who am I to judge? In this mixed up world we live in, all of us need something to alleviate our anxiousness.
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, an occasional series, and sporadic local weather reports. This news fast has lasted almost eight 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 countries of Central Asia and Africa, I realized media can be completely and irrevocably corrupt. The news I read in the papers there, even the Western papers, were not at all what was actually occurring real-time on location. Why should it be much different in the U.S.?
3) I was also stunned to find within minutes, and now with the advent of Twitter, seconds after a news event, I was often better informed about the facts than my friends who are addicted to reading newspapers and watching national television media outlets. I receive my news from people whose biases were known to me, and affinity groups and social networks who have my best interests at heart…and who are still human.
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.” They jump at the chance to be 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 maintain my intellectual independence and do not let talking heads decide what is important for me and what I should ignore.
6) News outlets often get the facts wrong. The news becomes the news. Yesterday’s CNN misreporting is a case in point.
7) After only a few months into the media fast, when watching a national television news outlet in a bar while waiting for an lunch appointment to arrive, I felt like I was watching a local used car pitch man scream at me. Even though the national anchor person seems a little more refined, the shock factor and sensationalism are eerily the same.
Maybe no news really is…good news.