What's Tony Thinking

Watching the News


Our news viewing practices have changed over the last year. How about yours?

During the Trump years we ramped up, watching the PBS Newshour nightly, and often the BBC World News as well. We felt an alarmed obligation to pay maximal attention. Somewhat breathlessly, we awaited and assessed whatever mendacities were spun out that day. We even got into the habit, for the first time in our lives, of eating dinner while watching the news. Probably not a healthy development.

A year into the Biden administration, we watch less news. Does that mean our level of apprehension has diminished? Maybe a little. Does that mean our interest or desire to be informed has lessened? I think not. It does mean we don’t feel we have a nut and serial liar at the helm so we can relax a little. But the issues remain critical and we hope our awareness does too. We are also trying to separate our eating from our news watching. Helps your digestion.

But there’s another factor, in addition to the change of administration, at play in these changes.

“The news” is pretty dismal and overwhelming. One event of disaster, disarray or catastrophe after another. The net effect is both depressing and disempowering. Does this mean that we only want “good news” or cute human interest stories with dogs? Not exactly.

But there is a difference between news that fans the flames of fear and leaves a person more or less flattened, and those that focus on responses to the challenges we face and steps toward solutions.  As an example, take climate change.

A good bit of the news and reporting on this issue, at least among the liberal or left-leaning, can be termed “Climate Catastrophism.” Here’s an excerpt from a recent “Liberal Patriot” newsletter which argues this is bad strategy for the left and for the Democratic party.

“According to this line of thinking, climate change is a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the left of the Democratic party, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, ‘the uninhabitable Earth.’

“This rhetoric persists despite the release of the new IPCC report that assigned a much lower probability to the extreme scenario (RCP8.5) featured in previous reports and deemed the most probable, “business as usual” outcome in those reports. Put another way, the new report was surer that global warming is caused by humans, but much less sure that it would produce an extreme outcome. That would seem to qualify as good news, but the reception of the report still tended toward the apocalyptic. The UN Secretary General characterized the report’s message as a ‘code red for humanity,’ where only immediate, drastic action could prevent ‘catastrophe.'”

“Indeed, the general reaction on the climate left to the public lack of interest in sacrifice to stop climate change is to repeat their apocalyptic rhetoric—except louder. It brings to mind the English-speaking tourist in a foreign country who just repeats, louder, what they were saying in an effort to be understood. It doesn’t work for them and it won’t work for the climate left.”

This article goes on to advise less catastrophism and more emphasis on the steps involved in energy transition. While I can imagine that is easier said than done, I think there’s a point here that relates to our news viewing. The old rule of thumb “if it bleeds, it leads,” seems to have morphed into something like “if it terrifies, say it again, louder.” As a motivational matter that doesn’t work. You don’t motivate people to change or act with fear, at least not when facing complex challenges.

As noted, I am not interested in happy-talk or escapism masquerading as news. But neither am I interested or helped by catastrophism, which may be chilling and compelling in the short term, but leaves one in head-shaking despair in the longer term. I suspect that is another reason why I, at least, may be watching less news.

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