Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

What is the News Doing to Us?

I’ve always sought to be informed. As far back as I can remember, I was drawn to the news. Watching the nightly broadcast, reading the daily newspaper, working through weekly periodicals like Time and US News & World Report, and majoring in International Relations at SDSU, I was certain I was up on things—until I realized I wasn’t.

It was an article by John Sommerville—and a later review by Joe Carter– that put my informed assumptions in their place. Entitled, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb,” (First Things, 1991) the essay raised troubling questions, both for those who are in the news business and those of us who consume what they push. What happens when you sell information daily? You must make each day’s report seem important. You must use words like “bombshell” and “explosive.” You must entice people to come back in such a way that the previous day’s news is no longer relevant. Yes, there might have been a monumental oil spill that compromised the beauty of Alaska and will have long-term effects. But that was yesterday’s news, and what matters is today’s report.

Sommerville went on to say, “The product of the news business is change, not wisdom.” Wisdom looks at the bigger context, the larger reality. It demands reflection. The news focuses on the immediate, uses deceptive words like “in depth” when giving a sixty-second report, and adapts to nanosecond attention spans. What happens to us who live on soundbites? We become addicted to the process of change. Such short bursts have a way of remapping our neural circuitry and reprogramming the memory. We begin to believe that those who aren’t equally strung out on a daily basis are the less informed.

The satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a journalist, began to see the contradiction. He once admitted, “I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”

Thirty-plus years later, a 24/7 news cycle leaves us even less informed. The abundance and speed of the news, the constant headlines and clickbait, and the all-pervading social media threaten to fragment us into smaller pieces. The myriad of voices continues to get louder and more sensational, using fake news to gain our attention. And as our awareness crumbles, we become bored, vulnerable, and unable to feel. This is the conclusion of Jeffrey Bilbro in his recent book, Reading the Times. Few books are timelier than this one.

Broken into three parts, Attention, Time, and Community, his book sounds the same warning as Sommerville. News, he warns, has become a spectacle that has taken on idolatrous proportions. It consumes our time and devotion. Over time, our “macadamized” minds become “passive highways for the trends and outrage that populate our news feeds.”

This, in large part, is why I refuse to watch the news and talk shows anymore. Much of it is what Bilbro calls “mental junk food.” If I succumb and turn on the news, I get a steady diet of resentment and outrage. This, I believe, has contributed to an angry and toxic culture.

This is not to say we shouldn’t seek to be informed, but we need to use better discretion in what we hear and read and who we listen to. I look for objective, thoughtful essays that get beyond the superficial, that work to see from multi-angles, and refuse to set up straw men to attack. But none of this can come at the expense of time devoted to seeking a better wisdom, reading substantive books, and reflecting deeply on what God is revealing in his Word.

The times call for a discipline that refuses to begin the day captured by the trivial, the buzzing alerts, and urgent headlines. We need a rigorous commitment to enter the silence and gain a perspective that transcends the fleeting temporality of this world. When I begin with God, economic forecasts and political wranglings are no longer the main drama; they become a distant backdrop. Much of the present obsession with leaders and which ones have and do not have the power, is a forsaking and going after other gods. It is a willingness to have God as the source and rule of life.

Each day’s contemplative silence “creates the interior space necessary to discern the particular issues to which we may be called to attend. When our best thinking is focused on who God is and what he is doing, we are “freed from emotional overinvestment in the day’s drama.” We might just become smart.

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