Breaking news: we’re discussing “the news” for today’s post. A massive topic, with entire facets meritorious of their own posts, but for today I prefer to focus on the most fundamental questions when analyzing the news as a concept: what is the news, and is “news” valuable? These are questions contemplated since the concept of news as an industry developed, and take on fresh significance and relevance in our present-day, 24/7, click-motivated news cycle.
Before the advent of mass-scribing technologies like the printing press, news, such as it was, was fundamentally local. Composed of rumor and hearsay, conveyed by town criers, or, more frequently, by the rare travelers and merchants, world news, or even national news, was a rare thing, and of minimal concern and relevance to places that operated locally, the typical village, hamlet, or settlement. Instead, the relevant news was conveyed by word of mouth, or sometimes posted fliers and bulletins in a town square, and consisted of such matters as occurred, affected, and were contained within a given locality. It took mass-scribing technologies to enable the kind of news we would recognize today, and hardly did that era begin before its utility was questioned.
Most innovations, perhaps all, experience a period of skepticism, but most that endure mature and outgrow it. News media is a rare example of one that, over a period of centuries, continues to face the same criticisms it did at its genesis: those of uselessness and intellectual degradation. The first newspapers, like our modern iterations, faced assertions by prominent intellectuals that they contributed nothing positive to the populace’s intellect and insight, and could even have deleterious effects upon the thought at time of their readers. These critiques’ persistence makes them notable, for they reflect a basic skepticism of the very concept of “news.”
Herein lies the heart of both questions with which we began this post, for the value proposition of news is driven by what constitutes its substance. What is worthy of being “news?” Who decides? What biases, tendencies, and motivations do those deciders possess? In this way the news is a dichotomous industry, by turns attaining extremes of nobility and cynicism, righteousness and corruption. In its centuries of existence, the news has driven democratic change, fostered intellectual debate, swayed public opinion towards ends both good and ill, and conjured new narratives into the public sphere. Its potential impact is so great that some schools of political thought rank it as comparable in power to any constitutionally derived branch of government (this is presupposing a freedom of the press, which Tocqueville described as an evil and excess tempered in America by the sheer proliferation of independent newspapers).
News can enable a collective consciousness, it can inform us of events and circumstances transpiring far from home and how they might affect us, and in an interconnected world, events and decisions emanating from distant regions have an unprecedented ability to impact our daily lives. In this sense, news is no longer local, and whether or not you philosophically agree with the ability of a distant decision to produce significant local effects, in this capacity the news is relevant and worth reading. Alas, these are far from the only matters reported in news media, and even those relevant topics are seldom reported upon with insight and nuance; rather, the news seeks to monopolize our eyeballs, manipulate our opinions and beliefs, and generate furor regardless of its legitimacy. In that sense, there is truth in the advice that we would be better served reading quality literature, like the works of Plato, than we are by reading news.
Thus, my own relationship with the news is, shall we say, strained. I read news regularly from a variety of sources, for I desire to be informed of such matters as may affect my life, yet I do not trust what I read, and I will rarely read a single article in detail, for they offer little new insight in most cases. Always am I conscious of the inherently biased nature of reporting, and that the media companies are the arbiters of what constitutes news and all the manipulative capacity that entails. If I desire more than the surface information, I seek my own sources and conduct my own research, that I might form my own conclusion and not adopt those fed to me by others of alternative motivations.
I cannot agree with those who decry the news as a pure evil, a worthless frivolity, and a meaningless distraction. In a world as interconnected as ours, we cannot afford to remain ignorant of those things of which we may not learn organically. Yet neither do I think that the news is a pure good; it is too easy to be manipulated by it, to be lost in its narratives and sensationalism, to lose track of why it exists and its native value. Most important, there is great harm in the continuous news cycle, which would have us believe that the world is Hobbesian and only journalists can save our fragile souls and minds; in that sense, our time most certainly is better spent ensconced in good books.