On a recent weekday evening I was watching the PBS NewsHour while I was preparing dinner for my kids. I wanted to get the latest information on the conflict in Mali. I was chopping vegetables when my daughter walked into the kitchen. She paused, looked toward the TV for a few seconds, then began to get agitated.
“Is there something going on?” she asked. I could hear the anxiety in her voice.
“No, why?” I replied.
She relaxed immediately. “I was just wondering,” she said before she moved to another part of the house.
I puzzled over this for a while. Why was she disturbed by one of the least-disturbing newscasts on the air?
I think I know why.
Most of the day I watch news programs with people basically yelling at each other or the viewer - HardBall with Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Morning Joe and others.
There’s a pace and tone of those shows - and it’s not particularly nice. Yelling, anger and hyperbole.
It’s striking that we are able to relegate that pace to the background as a soundtrack to our everyday lives - at least we can in my household.
The only change comes when there’s something of actual import happening. It wasn’t the content that bothered my daughter. What was just straightforward news was so out of the ordinary and jarring, she thought something significant was happening.
Now, I’m not going to go into a long meditation on what is news and what isn’t and how our national discourse should be conducted.
But, the fact that our media behaves differently when there’s actual news is cue to us about what matters and what doesn’t.
The programs that should agitate and disturb us - those where people yell at and denigrate each other - are normal consumption. Those that attempt to give us a calm and rational view of the world tend to freak us out - at least it did my daughter.
When there’s nothing to report, the media screams for your attention. They have to. There are so many other things competing for our time.
Agitate or educate. That’s the choice the media has.
Agitation is easy and fun. Agitation provides an addictive rush. It’s instant gratification. It brings eyeballs to your newscast - which satisfies egos and sponsors. It’s the “empty calories” of news.
Education is hard. It takes time. It’s not cost effective. It’s boring.
Edward R. Murrow warned us about this in 1958.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it's nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
And we wonder why our political discourse has become akin to bloodsport.
This post appeared in the Facebook feed of a friend:
My wife is taking a personal finance class at BYU, a night class. Planning for retirement kind of thing. So first day of class, he's talking about 401ks, and someone in the class raises her hand and says "I've heard Obama's taking away our 401ks. Is that true." Teacher sort of sighs, then says, "my job would be so much easier if I could persuade Mormons not to watch Fox News."
“I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.” ~ Margaret Thatcher