News gives people a false sense of wisdom. Knowing what goes on in the world does not make anyone more knowledgeable about what really matters. In fact, suggests Ode editor Marco Visscher, less news is a prerequisite for greater wisdom. How about tuning in to our own lives, instead of the lives of those who we cannot possibly influence?
Marco Visscher | February 2003 issue
One day at the newsroom of the Dutch daily Trouw, some editors and I joined in an interesting exercise, which wasn’t as harmless as it may sound: ‘what would you have done if you had been a correspondent in the Holy Land in the time of Jesus?’ We quickly concluded that we would have clung closely to the political power centre. For a journalist operating 2,000 years ago in Israel, it would have meant attending press conferences by Pontius Pilate. He would been our most important news source. Only every now and then would we write about one of the high priests who was questioning his power or filing a false expense claim.
We would likely view Jesus as nothing more than another fool calling himself the Son of God. He would irritate us with his drawn-out allegories, instead of speaking in easily digestible one-liners. On occasion we might write a witty background story about one of his ‘shows’ where he had cured people, the way we write pieces about Jomanda these days. Walking on water? The science desk would call it nonsense, so this feat would never make the paper – except, of course, if a front-page columnist picked up on it. Giving vision to the blind and healing the crippled and the lepers? We’d classify these miracles as smart public relations moves and nothing more.
Let’s take Judas instead, a colleague suggested. To him we would eagerly listen. As a former disciple he would gladly rock the boat. This would provoke accusations back and forth. And when Jesus was convicted and crucified, we would write a small obituary at most – perhaps a little piece on page seven. Wouldn’t we? But in so doing, we would have completely missed one of the most important events in world history.
After all, when a strong faith helps people recover from a disease, makes them feel less lonely, or inspires them to compassion, these events rarely make headlines. It’s not news that a padre listens carefully to the sincere regret of a believer and offers the mental relief to go on in life. It’s not news for a Buddhist to found a centre for meditation in her hometown where many others can find tranquillity and reflection. It’s not news for a practitioner of alternative healing to sweep away a woman’s inexplicable pain by reciting an ancient Indian spell.
Spirituality is systematically left out of the news – as if it plays no part in people’s lives. If and when religion is addressed in the media, the angle is often wrapped around themes of despair or ignorance. A paedophile minister? Put it on page one. (But a paedophile carpenter? Probably not.) The story of an American TV evangelist accused of having a child out of wedlock finds its way into the foreign pages in no time. Another favourite is the scientist who challenges an ancient religious dogma. Even an insignificant Japanese sect leader who evades taxation will attract news coverage. It seems religion only makes headlines when it is associated with something illicit or controversial.
The fact is that news does not shed much real light on any religion. Just like Hollywood productions, the news often perpetuates stereotypes. Muslims are always seen burning books or gathered in furious, threatening mobs. Someone once calculated that out of every 100 hours of broadcasting on European television, only 10 minutes are devoted to Islam. This may have grown by a couple of minutes after the attacks of September 11, but the big question is whether such attention contributes anything to understanding this world religion. Other religions get the same treatment: Hindus and Buddhists are always bald, half-naked monks linked to an exotic past who do nothing but meditate. This is the still the case at a time when Hinduism and Buddhism together – and Islam alone – claim a following of some 20 percent of the world’s population, and are growing increasingly popular.
On the other hand, perhaps it wouldn’t be altogether beneficial for the birth or revival of a spiritual movement to make big news. It would mean that a spokesperson would have to explain the faith’s main message. He would be forced to appear before cameras, casting him in a less spontaneous and authentic light. And he would need to package his message into ready phrases of some 15 to 20 seconds – otherwise a news editor couldn’t use it. Preferably he would criticise some other ideology, so the reporter could ask the next day for a response from the opposing camp. Then the journalist would start working on the story, looking for a prominent cynic to trash the movement, thereby provoking fresh counter-arguments and so on. This would go on until they suspected that the general public had lost interest and some other story had grabbed their attention. As a consequence, this religious renewal would have become just a ‘thing’, a news product. It wouldn’t anymore belong to the spirit.
Someone once joked that the churches are getting emptier because on Sundays so many people are still struggling their way through the extended weekend issue of the newspaper. This remark touches upon a fundamental distinction between religion and news. Religion – or contemplation or spiritual development – is about eternity; news is about incidents with little meaning. Seen from the perspective of world religions, the idea that so many things happen within 24 hours that they need pages of coverage and hours of talk could be seen as a sign that man is spiritually lost.
Man’s obsession with news gives him a false sense of wisdom. The virtue of wisdom is conveniently equated with being informed. My neighbour, who reads two newspapers, watches the news on television, as well as current affairs programmes and talk shows, is seen as a wise man. He knows what is on the political agenda. He knows the name of every minister in the government and how many seats the social democrats could claim according to the latest polls. He can discuss the latest American high school shoot-out as well as the arrest of a major drug ringleader in Colombia. He is able to support his opinions with arguments and knows which of his favourite columnists to quote at the appropriate moment. In short, his knowledge has brought him respect. However, knowing what is happening in the world, or what people discuss at the hairdresser’s, is not the same as wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge based on insight and experience. Wisdom may be obtained from old books, on a world trip, during a period of illness, or from talks with friends – in other words: life itself. Of course, my neighbour is not stupid. He just shares the common misconception of a society that confuses knowledge and insight. There seems to be a collective addiction to news. And intellectuals are always the ones who shout loudest for a heavier dose of the news.
Much time and stress would be saved if we would consume news less often. Imagine a monthly newspaper. Because of its nature, monthly news reporting is aimed at informing and commenting, while the objective of daily reports is to tell the same story from a different angle each day, or to add new meaning to what was written in black and white the day before, or to discreetly fix an error. As culture critic Neil Postman puts it, a daily newspaper throws facts ‘into and out of the conscious mind, with a speed that makes it neither possible nor necessary to take them into account’. On the other hand, a monthly paper would not pollute our brains all the time with facts, thoughts and opinions that we must instantly review and correct.
Daily frequency is not exactly a requirement of thorough journalism, but rather a necessity to keep the news industry in business. One can hardly blame journalists. They do precisely what the industry demands of them. News sells papers and broadcast time for television commercials, day in and day out, and journalists keep it coming. Waiting for something important to happen? Really rounding up a story? Contributing to the solution of a problem? These are not objectives. News does not exist for people to become wiser, but for people to keep watching and reading, every day, every hour.
That monthly newspaper will not easily happen. But the media could take on the challenge of enriching their daily reporting with some insight – to bring together the incidental and the eternal. When street violence reaches another low, journalists run to the government minister in charge, critics in the parliament, police chiefs and criminologists. This flow of reports continues for a few days, before it disappears from the collective memory. That’s how it always goes. But news could also offer readers an opportunity for contemplation. That way, one might hear words like ‘conciliation’ more often, instead of the raw promises of retribution by a mourning society.
Another example: when an alderman addresses the problem of the homeless, the local newspaper could inspire its readers to offer help. The paper could report about neighbourhood experiments where citizens show their compassion by offering soup. Or publish a portrait of a homeless person, so that he will be seen more as an equal human being than as a pitiful victim.
In the aftermath of September 11, the big American newspapers received a letter from the parents of one of the victims of the WTC towers. The letter called for peace. The parents didn’t want any new casualties in the name of their son. The letter wasn’t published, just as the mainstream media ignored most calls for contemplation. It didn’t fit with the view that, by definition, combat is news and love and peace is not. This is not only an American problem. In the Middle East and Europe and everywhere else, every initiative for peace is always less newsworthy than the next suicide bomber or a new anthrax letter. The Good Samaritan wouldn’t make it onto today’s front page, but the violent Sampson slaying the Philistines would.
Compassion is rarely what motivates journalists. Not because they are heartless creatures, nor because they wouldn’t do God (although surveys show that journalists all around the world are less religious than their readers). The main cause is that the current interpretation of news does not leave any room for introspection. It takes gunpowder to make headlines, not soothing words.
What is actually the opposite of news? Meditation, historian C. John Sommerville suspects in his amusing book How the News Makes Us Dumb. Imagine, he writes, that one day you wake up, take the newspaper from your mailbox, and the front page says only one word: TRUST or LOVE or COMPASSION or HOPE. What is this?! After all, you paid to follow the news every day, didn’t you? You spend 15 minutes reading every morning so you can converse with your colleagues around the coffee machine – and now this! How would you react? Angry? Scared? Or glad, because the world has finally found the peace and wisdom to focus on something like trust? It is really a beautiful word, if you think about it. Trust. Have a good look at that word… Those 15 minutes can be an oasis of peace in our busy, harried existences. Contemplating such words might even solve a little piece of the mystery of your existence. During the time that you would have otherwise spent getting excited about the news – by way of preparation for a busy day – you can also open your conscious mind to matters that are much closer or even within oneself. Assume that every paper would become a daily meditation service. For those who still want to start their day slightly frustrated, surely there will be a daily paper presenting words like VIOLENCE or FEAR. After all, newspapers shouting these words are already doing quite well.
The meaning of life can never become news; it would undermine the media industry. The more satisfying the answers to essential questions, the less necessary it becomes to read the paper. Personal development starts from the notion that there are more sources than newspapers, the Internet and text-TV. Would we really be bored to death or become unhappy without our daily newspaper, or without a newscast at every moment of the day? What if we tuned in to our own lives, instead of the lives of others who we cannot influence in any way? What if we would ignore all the political intrigue, those natural disasters in far-away countries, plane crashes, celebrity gossip – and instead we talked with our loved ones and visited our friends and neighbours? Isn’t it much more interesting to know their opinions? Why listen to the opinions of another professor or expert without listening to your neighbours – or to yourself? Where do you feel most at home: in a place where you are forced to passively watch fighting and misery, or in a community where you live every day and where you have influence?
Now you may wonder, how can we become wiser about what happens in the world today? We can’t. And we don’t have to. Nobody demands from you to be informed about everything. Only a few things are really important in a person’s life – and those are entirely outside the ‘news’ category.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is news.
Some suggestions for going on a news diet (read: withdrawal treatment):
- Never read today’s newspaper, but always yesterday’s. This automatically creates a certain distance.
- Never watch the news on television, but always view it half an hour later from a video recorder. Fast-forward when it is not interesting. You’ll watch less news. (It’s also nice to ask yourself aloud after the news reader’s every sentence: ‘Oh, is that so?’)
- (advanced level): Choose one day of the week and immediately put aside the newspaper without reading it. But don’t put it in the bird cage yet. After two (or three or four) weeks, take out the paper again and read it. See how many reports are outdated or just plain uninteresting? You haven’t missed a thing.