Current Affairs

Notes on a Nightmare #6: Against Newspapers

Depressing people with sad news without engaging them in political action is irresponsible.

I thought I would end up writing about the virus every day, but I haven’t done it in over two weeks. This is because of a strange mixture of there being too much to say and too little. There is too much because the present crisis has seemingly endless ramifications: shortages of essential medical supplies, horrible suffering from the disease, horrible suffering from mass unemployment, infections in prisons and immigration detention centers and homeless shelters, the cruel isolation of the elderly, the delay of essential medical procedures including abortion, the elimination of schooling and its severe effects on the education of a whole generation, looming nursing home bankruptcies, escalations in domestic violence, and an incoming “tidal wave” of evictions. Yesterday I opened the New York Times “arts” section hoping for a bit of relief. There was none: Instead there were stories about the shutdown of Broadway and the effect of the crisis on stand-up comedians. Today the lead “arts” story was about a struggling museum that will probably never come back. Inside the section was a double-page spread on books about climate change, in case you needed some relief from all the Covid news.  

Then, of course, there are the antics of our utterly useless and dishonest president, who is simultaneously affirming in principle that shutdowns are necessary to stop the disease and egging on protesters to demand an end to the shutdowns. Of course, he’s making no attempt to turn this global crisis into a moment for new global solidarity and cooperation, instead clamping down on immigration (which seems to be all he knows how to do), making it impossibly confusing for states to get ahold of protective equipment, and stoking needless tension with China. This has included refusing Chinese donations of vital personal protective equipment, on the grounds that the Trump administration doesn’t want to have to appear grateful to China (though Democrats are, inexplicably, attacking him for being too soft on China). Trump still swings wildly between appearing to accept the medical consensus at one moment and seeming to think the virus is a hoax the next. 

All of this makes me feel helpless and overwhelmed, as well as guilty. I am perfectly fine, but all around me terrible things are happening to people that I cannot stop, and cannot stop thinking about. I do not want to read the newspaper anymore, because it means I start my day depressed. And it feels less and less useful. Filmmaker Adam Curtis did a good mini-documentary years ago on what he called the phenomenon of “Oh Dearism” in media consumption: just passively watching a parade of horrible things and going “oh dear” without doing anything. We feel an obligation to watch in order to “stay informed,” because ignoring other people’s pain seems terrible. But we’re not actually offering anything beyond murmurs of pity. 

I think it might be time to reevaluate the purpose of newspapers. What good is a mere numbing catalog of tragedies? Journalists feel their role is to document “what is happening” and make sure people know the Facts and that the truth is seen. The usual critique of the journalistic mindset is that it denies its inherent biases and values instead of stating them openly. But I think there is a different and possibly even more important critique that needs to be made: mere documentation is not in and of itself helpful without being part of a program for action. If documenting all the things that are wrong is actually making us feel less able to do anything about them, then journalists are having a counterproductive effect.

I began to feel the same about academia when I was in graduate school. Academics who studied social problems often produced very useful findings. But there was a disinclination to ever become “political,” i.e., to actually become involved in attempts to change things. There was thought to be a division of labor: Those who produced the knowledge were doing so in order that those who act on knowledge might act. Likewise, the journalist’s “role” is not to tell readers what they ought to do, but to make sure that, whatever they do, they have access to all the information.

But look at the present situation: We are drowning in information, and are totally unsure of what to do. The best we get from our newspapers is explainers on when to wear or not wear a mask. At its worst, I think it is actually irresponsible to broadcast too much bad news. I know isolated elderly people who, cut off completely from all visits and socialization, do nothing but watch the news all day. And because the news is so bad, this is just like being shown a never-ending film reel of people having painful experiences. Frightening people too much harms them. Not offering them a way out or a program for action harms them. 

I am not suggesting we lie. But consider: My mother reads several newspapers each morning front to back, watches the PBS NewsHour each evening, and reads online news in the afternoon. Yesterday, she wanted to do something simple: donate some of her stimulus money to help undocumented people, who don’t get any. But she had to Google an organization that would do this. It wasn’t difficult to find. (Forbes has a list.) But a responsible news media would be constantly helping people think through the ethics and logistics of supporting others. I do not want to read an article about lonely seniors without having a way at the end for me to write to some or videochat with some. Have you been encouraged by the press to participate in a pen pal program? I certainly haven’t, even though the psychological threat to isolated people is so dire. Receiving a personal letter can make a person’s day and yet here we are, all alone and not helping lonely strangers. 

That is a small thing, and not a very “political” one. Yes, I want small suggestions about what I can do all over the place. But the larger problem is the absence of politics to begin with. And here by politics I don’t just mean “strong opinions on what ought to be done,” but a certain groundedness in political action and engagement. For example: A reader recently emailed me to tell me about a small victory won by unionized librarians in St. Paul, Minnesota. They were originally told that in order to be paid for time spent at home during coronavirus, they would have to use up their existing paid time off. The librarians loudly objected and went public. The city government changed its decision. Their existing paid leave was safe. 

I only found out about this because one of the librarians is a Current Affairs fan and sent the story. (He said his own activism was partly inspired by reading Current Affairs, which made me feel very, very good.) But any worthwhile newspaper should be mentioning this, because it is an example of people who do not have political power winning a fight. And by covering it, you show other people in other places that they, too, may have these kinds of powers within themselves, if they organize. A proper newspaper would not just publish the news of what happened, it would publish a backstory on how these people came to have a union in the first place, and how they managed to make enough of a stink to have a decision overturned. A good newspaper would even include a how-to guide: how to organize while trapped at home.

A central problem with the news media is that it does not care about participatory democracy. It is comfortable with politics being something that ordinary people merely watch and consume, rather than do. We raise “awareness” of things, and most people’s role is to: occasionally sign petitions or donate some money, and vote once every few years (a person who does these things is considered very politically engaged). That has never been more of a problem than right now, when “Oh Dearism” has gone to unprecedented levels as people literally sit helpless and alone in their houses. I do not want to watch the news anymore, not because I do not want to know what is going on, but because it helps nobody for me simply to be “aware.” We need to think about the effect on an audience of the ways in which we present information. If they leave just wanting to sit in a corner and cry forever, it is we the media who are failing. Instead, they need to leave feeling angry but energized, to feel that they have been listened to rather than merely spoken at, and to have at least some vision for a way that things could be different and a path to get there. Jacobin has become a model here: By reading interviews with workers who have taken action, people may come away feeling marginally less helpless. If they can do it, perhaps I can too. But while I don’t expect newspapers to embrace a program for democratic socialist action anytime soon, I do think the rest of us can change what we demand out of our journalists. “Staying informed” is no longer a good enough goal. We also need people to stay afloat, stay focused, stay ambitious, and stay fighting. 

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