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.