I don’t like myself when I’m watching the news. My stomach gets tight. My brain shuts off. All of the sudden the very complex world that I inhabit is made sharp, and boiled down into one point. People with lots of makeup on are talking over each other. Say all the truth, now, in 30 seconds. If it’s a news source I tend to agree with, I am lulled into a kind of stupor of agreeability and not encouraged to explore the issue any further. I am getting the final word, so that’s that. But if I am watching news I tend to disagree with, I am inwardly debating the pundit. I imagine myself on the news in a suit and tie, sparring with them. I go over all the points they are missing and I am like Christopher Hitchens throwing zingers:
Oh, how narrow-minded of you. Have you thought about this?
And everybody goes like, wow, wow.
This is a weird inward thought-stream, and one I doubt the news was originally designed to elicit. Maybe I am just weird, but I get the sense from broader culture: particularly the internet and television, that I am not alone. Opinions formed about the world are dearly held, and when they are even immaterially transgressed upon, a defensive mechanism kicks in. We want to defend our turf.
Information should be boring. That is the hint of objectivity—or, if that’s not possible, at least an attempt at objectivity. But news isn’t like that anymore. I am imagining Walter Cronkite in 1960 saying soberly: Dear viewer, a thing has happened.
Now when a thing happens we are immediately given not only the thing itself, but also its interpretation.
A thing has happened and here’s why it’s bad.
Turn the channel:
A thing has happened and here’s why it’s good.
It’s like eating food that has already been chewed, and we are constantly being told that this is the only way it can be done.
Michiko Kakutani said it best in 2006:
We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics… This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.
Prescient, she was.