PUTTING TOO MUCH WEIGHT ON THE NEWS


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NEWS AS A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

For most of us, reading the day’s news is one of the first things we do after awakening. We grab a cup of coffee and go online. Many of us also glean what’s happening from social media. In this way we attempt to construct a narrative that allows us to feel responsible and informed. We’re trying to act like adults.

We’re also trying to protect ourselves from being blind-sided by some new tragedy. Social pressure leads us to want to be among the group of those who have been informed about the latest developments. Otherwise we would seem like those poor souls who are out of the loop. The process begins in Junior High. You don’t want to be caught dead not knowing about the latest trends in fashion and music.

The “legitimate” news sites all cover the same ten or fifteen stories of that day. They are considered legitimate because somebody gets paid to research and write the articles. They attempt to provide “balance,” whatever that is. On the other hand, Social Media is a hall of mirrors, a closed system which seems open to its users but is really the best example of confirmation bias in action anyone has ever devised. Instead of being a forum for discourse, it’s a pep rally. Hooray for our side. Your “friends” read your posts and you read theirs. You share and like memes which are created by others. In this way you act like boys trading baseball cards at the playground. It’s a form of self-expression based on identifying with something bigger than you.

In Playwriting, they suggest that if a fact is presented in the first act, it must matter by the final act. We have all seen plenty of movies and TV shows, and we’re hip to foreshadowing. We know how to infer causality. We can even imagine reverse engineering plots in order to make a neat story with a tidy ending. What we can’t comfortably deal with is unscripted reality. So we imagine meaning where there is none.

We become irritated by news that doesn’t suggest a plot or a probable outcome. If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad, or get an emotional release from the climax, what’s the point in consuming this entertainment called “news?”

There are computer programs that help struggling authors write by suggesting the elements of creative writing. Plot twists, character traits, motivations, climaxes, resolutions. They are like those programs that help you do your taxes by asking your questions about your financial affairs.

We use these programs and forums in order to make sense of today’s world and because we’re lazy. Thinking and writing are hard.

At least lately, there is a palpable sense among most of my social media “friends” that the world is on the brink of collapse. Hurricanes, Global Warming, nuclear threats, an insane President, earthquakes, Planet X, solar storms, predictions about an imminent stock market collapse. People share a generalized fear that the world is out of kilter and wobbling uncontrollably.

I, however, think that this is normal for the conditions we’ve created. 24/7 news access and the ability to comment on it via social media have made Nervous Nellies of us all. When I was young, my family watched Huntley and Brinkley in the evening, after supper. The dishes washed and put away, the children in their pajamas, we would cluster in front of the TV and watch sober, middle-aged white men tell us what was happening, often in somber tones. Walter Cronkite was grandpa, providing assurance that all was under control, and that tomorrow would be no crazier than today had been. But now, those avuncular guys are gone. Now, we’re on our own.

Oh sure we have some assistance in selecting which memes we will like or share. We have Fox and Friends or NPR depending on our political bent, but the main stories of the day have been agreed upon by all the legitimate news sources, and it’s only up to us to judge their importance and their concordance with our beliefs. Is today the day I believe I should quite my job, cash out and run away? My general sense is that things are out of control and getting worse every day. Can I hang on much longer?

I think the reason we have the arrogance to construct these narratives is because we feel we have been abandoned by the experts we used to trust to do this work for us. Nobody trusts politicians anymore. Anybody who wants to can start a YouTube channel for free and use his smart phone as a camera. Nobody wants to be Chicken Little, believing every rumor and running about clucking in terror. So we reluctantly construct a narrative that seems to embrace or at least explain the main news developments of today.

But we are often dogged by doubt. I forget, is ISIS real or a construct of Israel and the Saudis? Which events were false flags? Is President Trump a successful businessman or a mentally-ill loser? Should I be buying Bitcoins? Is it time to upgrade to a better phone?

No matter which decisions we make and which we postpone making, we will never feel safe or assured that we have not completely gotten it all wrong, because we’re relying on a self-constructed narrative with occasional input from a peanut gallery of social media “friends” who also have no clue. Whether you’re a teenage girl agonizing over which shampoo to buy or a retired geezer wondering whether to start ticking off the items of his bucket list, we’ll still be fraught with anxiety because that’s what this whole news/social media thing was designed to do in the first place.

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What Passes for Discourse Nowadays


 

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When I was a kid I used to turn on the TV so early that they hadn’t started regular programming yet. They used to show Industry on Parade newsreels. “Aluminum, Friend to the Housewife.” Even back then I knew what this was. It was propaganda. Advertising created by someone who would profit from selling aluminum pots and pans.

 

Then, when I went to grade school, we kids would buy bubble gum packs that came with baseball cards. We would then trade these cars on the playground. We guessed at the relative value of each card, and privately gave them value based on the inferred personality of the player. I’m a Don Drysdale kind of guy, but Billy over there is into Curt Flood. Again, we weren’t creating these cards, we were purchasing them and then imagining that this process would help us become like the men people pictured on the cards. Sympathetic magic.

 

College kids hope that certain bands on their playlist will attract the right kind of friends or mates. My record collection was more important to me than anything else I owned, because it expressed who I was, in case anybody cared to know. On the first warm day of spring I placed my speakers in an open window and blared out Crosby, Still and Nash singing “Four Dead in Ohio!” I was the kind of guy who hated Nixon.

 

Nowadays, on Facebook, people share political memes that attack certain candidates. We think of this as self-expression. Sure, the recipients of our posts are our “Facebook Friends,” so it’s basically preaching to the choir, but that’s OK. Sharing pre-manufactured memes that come our way is no more an example of creativity or self-expression any more than is collecting baseball cards or downloading other people’s musical output. We are buying into the idea sold to use by product manufacturers and their agents, advertising agencies, that we can be defined by our consumer choices. I’m an Apple person. Me, I’m strictly Microsoft. I’m better than both of you, I’m open-source Linux.

 

But what do any of us really know about these things we do not create but simply share. Remember, Facebook was created as a social tool to help college students find like-minded friends. So far all this sharing of “news stories” from various sites is neither research nor essay writing. These sometimes powerful and clever memes are not being produced by amateurs. They are the work of paid writers and graphic artists.

 

When we share a post that says “Share if you’re proud of your son,” or comply with the command “Share if you love Jesus, keep scrolling if you don’t care that he died for your sins,” we’re endorsing an ugly form of literary bullying. Someone is benefiting monetarily from our blindly playing along with this. This sort of activity has largely replaced reasoned debate and considered discourse. We never had a surfeit of those to begin with, but I’m afraid that today one ugly picture of Hillary scowling on Facebook could matter more than anything she may or may not have done or said.