Why the News Makes Us Dumb

From First Things:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come hack tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.

In the book based on the article, Sommerville points out:

The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.


Sommerville’s more academic book, The News Revolution in England, points out (p135) that while “periodical news found a natural affinity for politics, it discovered the opposite with religion.”

From page 168 in that book:

Shortly before making the first presentation of some of this material, a reporter who had seen my title called to ask whether I could summarize it briefly — in a couple of sentences, perhaps. Nothing simpler, I said; it amounts to the idea that one cannot summarize anything as complex as an idea or an event in a couple of sentences, and that the reason we don’t realize this is because of an enormous change in consciousness which we could can the News Revolution.

Sommerville concludes The News Revolution in England with a quote from Albert Einstein, “it is still best to concern oneself with eternals, for from them alone flows that spirit that can restore peace and serenity to the world of humans.”

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2 Responses to Why the News Makes Us Dumb

  1. Dan says:

    We all tend to inflate what is in front of us to make it digestible and comprehensible… understandable. Bureaucracies do this by making their actions appear inevitable, and news agencies do this by “sticking to the facts”… or sticking us with opinion making their analysis seem inescapable.
    Nobody seems to happy with what is currently passing for news or government actions. The dinosaur media is now contemplating hooking up with the government tit to keep it’s current tilt going. Anything to avoid change that involves adapting to markets and consumers wishes.

  2. kentuckyliz says:

    I’m on a news fast. The world spins on without my paying anxious attention to it. I figure I’ll know the important stuff, from people talking about it. I accidentally channel-surfed through Jon Stewart when he was expressing bemused shock to have found out that we had gone to war with Libya that morning. If I hadn’t accidentally tuned in to that, I wouldn’t have known…because no one is talking about it.

    What I’m realizing is the wisdom of the cloistered Carmelites. No wonder they end up Doctors of the Church.

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