Smart people don’t read the news

When I was a kid, going to secondary school and college, smart people consumed the news.

If you didn’t have much time, you “snacked” — consumed the few news segments on TV. If you considered yourself a serious person in society, wanting to be an informed voter and current on events and discoveries of the day, you got a morning newspaper and read it. Gave you wonderful material for conversation the rest of the day. Finally, if you really wanted to understand how the world around you worked, you subscribed to magazines, where long format and deep-dive articles took their time explaining to you why things were the way they were.

No more.

Nowadays most people don’t trust the news, but they still consume it. I find that odd.

The usual culprit is that the press has some sort of leaning to it — it’s either conservative or liberal. But press has always been biased, so I don’t buy that. People will tell you that it was the fault of cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, but while that played a contributing factor, I don’t think it’s the entire story.

Nope, the reason consuming the news today sucks is that we live in a world of constant outrage.

At some point, news publishers realized that emotional engagement, not facts or solid background material, drove readers to consume and share. So all of our media channels are full of people who are either outraged about something or are using thinly-veiled logic to get us upset about something.

And so we have a treasure trove of material designed to drive “engagement”, which just means it’s stuff guaranteed to provoke an argument. Any news event can be spun half a dozen ways to try to generate anger — and it will be. Then, whichever angle works out the best will be mined for eyeballs until the next story comes along.

This consumption of material engineered to constantly outrage does not make for a healthy mind. Part of the reason is the constant emotional roller coaster it puts the consumer in, but part of the reason is that the media outlets are constantly trying to cover up and deny that this is why they’re running the stories to begin with. So most outlets well-known for “just the facts” reporting are anymore just presenting a light sheen on top of articles designed to enforce pre-existing attitudes.

Put another way, the reader is constantly being manipulated. The only question is the degree of manipulation and the honesty involved.

That’s why I’ve converted to reading tweets and opinion columns. Tweets are almost entirely too shallow to waste much of my time, and they’re wildly inaccurate, but they keep me apprised of the general gist of day-to-day conversation. Opinion columns are there to make a point regarding some pre-existing opinion. I find that to be perfectly fine. If you’re going to spin and slant the news to make your point, at least be a man about it and tell it to my face. Don’t hide behind “analysis” and pro and con segments.

With these two forms of news consumption, as long as I read opinion columns from all over the spectrum, I get a fairly good balanced diet of what’s going on. I don’t find all the drama in the news that my fellow consumers feel.

Consuming the news has changed. Smart people don’t do it like they used to.

I wish I could say long format pieces have survived this shift. They have not. More and more, I’m seeing long format articles that amount to nothing much more than extended arguments put forward by one special interest or another, many times with an interview of a token person holding an opposing position as some sort of fig leaf to “fairness”. What is needed here, as in tech and science news, is reporters that actually know their area and can write stories at length about important events happening there. Instead what we’re finding is reporters who are getting socially involved in issues, then try to pry meaningful news from their social network. You end up with four-thousand-word cocktail party chat. Not always, but more and more.

It’s sad that news is dead. As a former freelance writer who has written for both weekly, daily, and magazine outlets, I liked them. The TV guys were never hitting on much, but they had a fun, egocentric job to do as well. These guys as purveyors of what’s important to know are long gone. Their job positions and media outlets will go on for many decades longer, sadly. And dumb people will keep consuming them, keep getting upset every day, and keep wondering why the world is such a bad place to live in.

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