No discouraging words revisited

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In an earlier post, Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, I announced an experiment. Following my wife’s efforts to suspend negative thinking and speech during Lent, I decided to refrain from critical posts through Easter. Here is the first of several observations I will share.

Avoiding negative and pessimistic topics leaves me a lot fewer subjects to blog about! Many of my posts begin with news stories, but often it seems, to paraphrase the old Hee-Haw song, “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” More nights than not, when I’ve checked my usual source websites (CNN, NPR, USA Today, etc.), I haven’t found a single upbeat or funny or quirky post that I wanted to write about. Sure, there was the girl scout who sold 12,000 boxes of cookies, but even if it’s a good thing for a kid to become a marketing wizard, that isn’t my kind of story.

The real question for me, however, is not the content of this weeks’ or that weeks’ news, but the systemic nature of our news media, which makes trials and tribulations endemic. These are news stories, after all, and a good story demands tension, upping the stakes, and all that. The question is not whether these are gripping stories, but the degree to which they mirror “reality.”

I’m thinking of a book I have often cited here, Neal Gabler’s, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (2000), in which the author says we are not just a post-modern culture but a “post reality culture.” Gabler locates the beginning of news-as-entertainment in America as “the penny press.” Prior to 1830, newspapers were single page “broadsheets” which appealed to the upper classes. Most of them cost six cents and the average daily circulation in New York City was 1200. Beginning with the Sun, which cost a penny, newspaper sales exploded. Gabler cites various reasons for the success of the penny press, but says that above all, it meshed with other sensational forms of entertainment:

“…for a constituency being conditioned by trashy crime pamphlets, gory novels and overwrought melodramas, news was simply the most exciting, most entertaining content a paper could offer, especially when it was skewed, as it invariably was in the penny press, to the most sensational stories. In fact, one might even say that the masters of the penny press invented the concept of news because it was the best way to sell their papers…”

In it’s first two weeks of publication, in 1835, the New York Herald ran stories that centered on “three suicides, three murders, the death of five persons in a fire, a man accidentally blowing off his head, an execution in France by guillotine and a riot in Philadelphia.” Needless to say, the Herald became wildly successful.

If it’s true that what we think of as “news” is an “invented concept,” we have to ask to what degree it mirrors reality and to what degree it creates it? Think about that the next time you open the paper or check your Tweets.

What I have discovered is how deep the contagion goes, even though I normally limit my sources, never watching the local news on TV, for instance. I confess that while I have cut negative posts from theFirstGates since March 7, I’ve probably doubled the number of depressing subjects I’ve posted on Twitter. In a way, I feel like I did a month after I quit smoking, and found that a nasty cough was still there. This is more serious than I thought at first. I’ll have more to say about it, but meanwhile, let’s change the tone as we end with a classic that came to mind at the start of this post.

12 thoughts on “No discouraging words revisited

  1. I just returned from a visit with my elderly parents. The effect of relentless negativity in the news is obvious in them. I’m convinced the hours they spend watching TV news or reading it on the internet have made them bitter, angry, and lacking in hope. I wish they would spend a period abstaining from all “news” to re-engage in real life, where they are surrounded by happy people who care about them.


    • That is a clear example of what I meant by news “creating reality,” especially when I’ve noted traces of “bitter, angry, and lacking hope” in myself. A difference is that I don’t believe this is our native condition – I’ve been in too many situations where courtesy and decency reigns.

      Results of a poll published on 11/30/13 was titled “Americans don’t trust each other ( No surprise that results are trending down since the poll was first taken in 1972 (which after a decade of war and racial struggle, was no one’s idea of harmony). So here is statistical “reality” which I am intuitively sure was mostly the creation of for-profit mass media.


  2. As an obvious example, the issue of violent crime. I said that America’s rate of crime, especially murder, has decreased dramatically (I don’t have actual numbers in my head, but I’ve heard many reports about the surprising drop and everybody trying to figure out why). My father countered that this is a lie, that in fact, there are more murders than ever and somebody is covering it up. The basis for his argument? All the terrible murders he sees on TV.

    The power of anecdote triumphs over statistics once again.


    • Here’s an anecdote I read recently (might have been in the Bee editorial pages). A popular restaurant in a state with permissive concealed weapon laws stirred up controversy by announcing a weapons ban on its Facebook page. Most patrons were understanding, especially when the owners said the reason was to reduce their insurance premiums. Yet one person wrote, “Why do you hate America so much?” Another said, “Well if I have to go in their unprotected, I’m not going.” Unprotected is an interesting phrase, given that this is a bar and grill! In what kind of weird reality is it safer when patrons at the bar, slugging down brewskis, are packing???

      The most convincing comments I’ve read on that is that it’s the weapons makers who stir up 2nd amendment furor. In fact, the percentage of households that own weapons has been trending down over 40 years, meaning that to keep up profits, the gun makers have to sell more guns to those that already have them, thus the pushback against limiting assault weapons, etc. If that is the case, it is again, a very self-serving and cynical manipulation of public opinion – and the public’s very notion of reality – for profit.


  3. When I read the title of your blog, I was pretty sure you would be reviewing some classic Western movie, and I do love your movie reviews. The negativity stems from our system of news over-stimulation as we are battered from every side by the “news” of the day, the same story over and over focused on the worst story outlets can find. So maybe for Lent you should watch some good movies and read some good books and share your thoughts with us.


    • I kinda thought Thor, The Muppets, and Scott Adam’s latest book fit those categories. I didn’t review the new Muppets movie because I found it (relatively) disappointing, but it did get me thinking of (to my mind) Jim Henson’s pre-digital animation masterpiece, “Dark Crystal” (1982), so I expect a review of that to be forthcoming.


  4. I like to think that the proportion between mediate and immediate experience has a lot to do with our perception. For example, we can look out the window and spend time outside to know the weather in an immediate way, through our senses. Looking for information on the weather from other mediated sources can then be filtered through one’s own senses.

    I think too much mediated information colors our perception in both a negative and a positive way.


    • Even immediate experience is colored by our pre-dispositions and stories, (however one imagines the origins of those pre-dispositions). I remember a story that illustrates this. Film maker, Ingmar Bergman went to Rome to visit is friend, Federico Fellini, but soon hurried home to his north sea island, saying all the sunlight in Rome “made him claustrophobic.” On his island home there were only about 50 sunny days a year.

      I am also very much influenced by a Buddhist theory of perception, beautifully articulated in an article by a Tibetan Lama. One day in kindergarten, we entered the classroom and the teacher drew three lines on the board: / and – and \. The teacher then said, “This is the letter A. Forever after, we recognize that pattern of lines as “A” and believe there are A’s “out there” in the world, when in fact, “A” exists only in our mind. / – \ exists “out there” as a pattern of marks, but “A” is literally only in the minds of those who have learned our alphabet.

      A bit long winded, I admit, but it’s the kind of thought that for me, lends credence to the idea that the world is extremely fluid and statements like, “The world is made of stories.”


  5. Presumably there is a genetic basis for our predisposition to favor negative news. In our evolutionary past, if we heard a rustle in the bushes, believing the worst might save our life. Steven Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ meticulously demonstrates that violence has actually been declining over time.


    • I haven’t really thought about the why, but I suspect lies in what makes a good story. In other words, I agree with Gabler, that what we think of as news is spiced up like good fiction (tension on every page) because people will change channels when faced with literal reporting. I always think of a parallel event – that Freud’s writing won him a Nobel Prize in Literature, rather than science as he fondly hoped.

      In stories, from the oldest recorded legends to the latest thriller, I there’s a lot of plain old Aristotelian catharsis going on. Sadly, the news channels simply deliver the tension with no means of dissipating it, which I suppose means we go through our days an excess of free-floating fight-or-flight instinct….

      A huge topic.


  6. It is indeed a huge topic. And yet I’m minded of a few points that light up the seeming darkness.
    One is that most of our entertainment is, despite apparently based on antagonism, conflict and violence, is largely biased towards the happy ending, while on the other hand so-called factual news rarely has neat solutions, and frequently no resolution at all. Does one in any way cancel out the other?

    Secondly, there was a possible woozle I once read (appropriate enough to mention today, April 1st) about The Children’s Newspaper which only reported good news in its pages, never bad. So much so that the day it ceased trading (significantly, lack of sales) it didn’t even announce its demise as this would have counted as ‘bad news’. Does this say anything about how it’s impossible to get the balance between good and bad news right?


    • Your comment reminded me of a weird little skit that I was able to find on youTube, from a brief running show, MadTV. It’s the “Happy, Happy, Story Lady,” telling a room full of children “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Unfortunately, the happy, happy, story lady is bipolar one of her props is a wrapped package of lamb chops from the supermarket…

      I’d venture to say it’s not that much more weird in spirit than some of what passes for “news.”


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