Thursday, April 25, 2013

Too much news?

Is there such a thing as being too well-informed, brimming with too much information?  Thoreau, long, long before the era of mass media as we know them, thought so. In a famous passage from Walden (1854), he wrote:

"If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, we never need read of another. One is enough."

You might say Thoreau was a crank, an extremist who sought (partial) solitude from the madding crowd, such as it was in those days. But his frustration with the trivial facts of the daily news, on which his neighbors spent much of their time, is understandable in a week when CNN has been  bringing us a constant barrage of not always accurate, "breaking" reports on the suspects in the Boston Marathon massacre.

At issue is, how much information does an informed citizenry need to make good political judgments?  If knowledge is power, how much knowledge is too much? So much depends on who we are and what we do with facts in the information age.

Some of Thoreau's frustration seems to live in the work of the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly and of an article in a recent issue of the Guardian in which he argues that we should cut out our consumption of the news entirely. It is an arresting article that will drive news junkies crazy and lead many others to scratch their heads.

Dobelli objects to the continuous flashes of repeated news flashes, which he likens to junk food that is irrelevant to our lives; it is much easier, he says, to determine what is new than what is important.  He considers the news misleading since it does not provide an explanatory context for understanding facts.  As a result, he says, terrorism becomes over-rated and chronic stress under-rated.

What is new is, moreover, bad for the brain (something to do with the immune system), inhibits thinking, weakens comprehension, wastes our times, and makes us passive.  "I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie," he writes.

Of course, he is right to a point: the writer/artist must have time for quiet reflection and, as my wife and I are, cut off from the world one day a week so we can give full attention to our work. The same is true for prayer or meditation time. To the extent that over-reliance on the latest news gets in the way of the good attention we should pay to the really important things, Dobelli is right.

Thinking people should read the kind of journalism Dobelli advocates--the in-depth investigative article--avoiding too much reliance on the repetitive sound bites provided in our media. The problem: many people are too busy to spend hours looking for and reading such articles. Is total ignorance of what is happening preferable to addictive news?

Dobelli has, apparently, become famous for avoiding news just as his fellow Swiss are famous for disengaging themselves from the real world in their land of neutrality and secret bank accounts.  However much I may agree with the drift of his argument in his short article--not a substantive, ruminative piece as found in the The New Yorker, the Atlantic, or Harper's--I have to remind myself that, like Thoreau, he goes too far.

We need to know what is going on in our world: the latest political, economic, and foreign events, and the leaders responsible, impact our lives, whether we like it or not. How can we hold these leaders responsible (for torture, injustice, stupidity) if we do not follow the daily news?  We must, of course, be selective in our listening and reading and not become inured to what David Foster Wallace called "total noise," a tsunami of facts and opinions coming at us from all directions.

Intelligent people need to go beyond relying on instant headlines and news flashes, but we need information in order to bring to what we read and discuss some factual grounding. Besides, for me, the psychological motivation involved in those making the news is usually fascinating and important. It provides material out of which good fiction comes as well as the investigative journalism that Dobelli prefers.

No comments: