The Downfall of the News Junkie
Is there such a thing as being "too informed"?
Self-anointed or not, TV “news junkies” are a unique breed. It’s the one way to watch endless hours of television and not be viewed as a total slacker. In fact, news junkies are usually celebrated for being the exact opposite of a couch potato: they are devoted and well-informed, relevant and unsuperficial. It’s a commendable, even encouraged, vice to have.
I come from a family of news junkies. Growing up, it was not unusual for my Midwestern family to tune into the “early news” on at either 4:30 or 5:00, then, right after that, watch the network evening news (which my dad always called Walter, as in Cronkite, something he continued to do long after Cronkite retired) on at 5:30. Then we would watch another local news broadcast on immediately after that.
Then, for my family, enduring the three or so hours between the end of that newscast and the arrival of the 10PM (CST) news was too unthinkable. So, luckily, a super station we got through our cable hook-up broadcast an hour-long, oxymoronic-ly titled “early late” news that filled the hour between 9PM and 10PM; we regularly tuned in. The evening was then caped off with another half-hour local news report at 10 filled with stories, sports and that all-important last chance weather report.
Thankfully, my family usually turned in too early to take in Nightline.
Even in my youth this evening long news marathon seemed weird and oddly excessive. Couldn’t we just once watch Wheel of Fortune? Looking back, I wonder if it wasn’t a little dangerous, too.
First there’s the sheer lack of need for checking the news so frequently. Except for in times of war (or maybe elongated “debt ceiling” talks), news seldom changed that fast. Especially in terms of local news with its more limited budgets and smaller staffs, the newscast delivered at 10PM was almost always a near carbon copy of the earlier one at 6PM. Even when different stations/networks were sampled throughout the evening (Channel 5 at 5; channel 6 at 6, etc.), the stories covered, and even the order in which they were reported, were nearly identical. There was nothing “new” about this “news”.
In fact, by 10PM, the six-car pile up or the five-alarm fire we first heard about at 5PM, was actually pretty much “old news”. By its third repeating it had also lost all its newsworthiness, its importance and its impact (for those of us not personally affected, anyway) What grabbed our attention at its first hearing became so much white noise by its third or fourth.
Let’s call it “news inertia”. News inertia is the video equivalent of Andy Warhol’s repetitive silk-screens. His repeated images of car accidents, plane crashes or a mourning Jackie Kennedy gradually breed numbness, even disinterest and boredom.
Thanks largely to cable franchises like CNN and MSNBC, viewers today can now “enjoy” a nearly uninterrupted stream of news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But at what point does so much news become too much news? And at what point do we become even slightly immune to even the most devastating of events?
The problem lies not only in how much “news” we take in, but also in how we receive it, as well. Due to the inherent brevity of most news stories (or “packages” as the video pieces in newscasts are called), and of course the sound byte structure which this brevity necessitates, the news today seems to fly by us in a blur of images and fragments. Even on CNN, et.al., where time is not at as much of a premium, the news of the day is so often so chopped up into little manageable, digestible segments that while the basic facts of a story might be conveyed, very little of its human element is ever felt.
In fact, TV news is so divided up and often so quickly delivered that it's usually quickly, immediately replaceable. Missed one story with its litany of names, facts, stats and numbers? Well, don’t worry, another whole new news story with a brand new set of names, facts, stats, etc., is coming right behind it. News presented like this is like an ADD dream.
I've come to wonder if it isn’t sometimes easier to watch “the news” (and especially the repeats and pseudo-repeats of the news played out over the course of a televised evening) than just about anything else on television. With its bite-size bits and sound bytes, news requires little of our true attention. (How many of us have sorted the mail or done something else while we “watched” the news?)
News requires little involvement on our part. There are no plot points to remember, no chance or risk of getting too involved with any of its “characters” (they are, after all, usually just fleeting faces and quickly forgotten names scrolled at the bottom of the screen). It’s all over pretty quickly and chances are you’ve heard most of it before, anyway.
Day-long or nightly news benders might sound like an evening, or a life, well spent, something even to boast about. We watched “the news!” We “know what’s going on in the world!” Yet such obsessive watching has a dangerous side-effect: one may be stunningly well-informed, but one will become deeply unaffected.