The Hazards of Secondhand News
By LARRY M. ELKIN
Let’s talk about a product found in virtually every American household that sometimes causes serious side effects, including anxiety, depression, delusions, and even fits of anger. You might think this product should come labeled with advice to keep it out of the reach of children.
It does not. I am talking about the news.
I have nothing against the news; I myself am a big daily consumer. My regular reading list includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, The Washington Post, Bloomberg.com and two political publications, Politico and The Hill.
But I have a reason for ingesting all this information – running a business and advising our clients requires me to stay on top of a broad range of topics – and despite the range of titles, I am selective about what gets my attention. I pay little heed to ordinary crime stories, celebrity gossip and stock market tips, for example. Most of this is noise that I cannot put to any useful purpose. I also try to get my information from sources with a variety of viewpoints to avoid living in an ideological echo chamber that only repeats what I already think I know.
Broadcast and cable news is notably absent from my regular news diet, though I do indulge in small quantities. I watch PBS’ NewsHour when I have the opportunity, and CNN, the BBC or the U.S. broadcast networks will do when I want a quick roundup of headlines with video. Bloomberg’s “Surveillance” morning broadcast (on TV with Tom Keene and Scarlet Fu, and on radio with Keene and Michael McKee) offers some of the best discussion of economics for non-economists anywhere.
Still, most of what passes for cable TV news is absent from my news diet entirely, and not merely because I am usually at work when those broadcasts are aired. I have concluded that a lot of daytime cable news programming is not just unproductive; it is downright harmful.
Fox News seems to be particularly, though not uniquely, corrosive. I say this as a registered Republican white male, who gets solicitations from the National Rifle Association that include a camo-patterned duffel bag as a premium for my paid membership. I suppose this is so I can be fully equipped as I stand my ground. I am exactly the demographic that should watch Fox News.
But I don’t, because I have seen too many people overdose on the channel and then appear to lose all sense of perspective. They start buying gold, or worse, Bitcoin. They start comparing America in our time unfavorably with America in the 1950s. Do we really want to go back to a time when being black meant being segregated, or being gay meant being closeted or hounded? One European-born Fox watcher recently said that our situation is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Was she referring to the Nuremberg Laws, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, or Kristallnacht? Don’t ask me. I don’t watch Fox News.
Over on MSNBC, the Koch Brothers are the reincarnation of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust. They control the outcome of American elections – although the results of most recent ones, especially the 2012 presidential campaign, must have disappointed them.
At CNBC, Jim Cramer will “teach you how to analyze stocks and the market like a pro,” according to the network’s website. This is truth in advertising. The pros have no idea what the market or a particular stock is going to do tomorrow, or next week or next month, and when Cramer is through with you, you won’t either. But he’ll certainly try to get you excited. This won’t be good for your investments, but it might keep his sponsors happy.
HLN (which was Headline News before they literally took the news out of it) wants to talk about whatever people are talking about, I presume because it hopes people will tune in to hear themselves talk. CNN spends its days trying to plot a course between liberal MSNBC and conservative Fox.
This is all very unhealthy, even for adults. The imperatives of TV marketing demand that every minute of every hour of every day have a “top story” and that this top story must be of breathless importance, whether it is our umpteenth federal budget spat, a Chicago snowstorm in midwinter or a devastating nuclear accident in Japan. In the same way real noise can damage our hearing, all this news-noise reduces our ability to detect the differences between what is of major and lasting importance, what is of fleeting significance and what is truly of no consequence whatever.
News-noise is even worse for kids. Fortunately, most are at school when this daily foghorn blast sweeps through American homes. But there are too many snow days, sick days and holidays for us to let our guard down. Children can’t independently assess which news really might matter to them and which does not. They are taught to rely on adults, and the adults who present the news on TV have Q ratings that make them seem particularly reliable. How are the kids supposed to know that this seeming reliability is produced by wardrobe consultants, speech coaches and dental whitening products?
It is up to us, the adults in the house, to help children put the news in perspective. Keep them away from secondhand smoke that poses as information. You don’t have to shield them from the actual news itself when it comes from reliable sources, but help them watch it. Talk to them about what it means in their lives. Let them know that the people around them in real life, not on the flat screen, are here to guide them and keep them safe. Explain how Nielsen ratings and sweeps months, not a full moon, can turn newscasters into destructive monsters.
Or just turn off the TV, go outside and do something truly fun and rewarding. If not for your own sake, then for the children.