Having spent more than 40 years reporting, writing and editing the news, I am surprised to conclude that overconsumption of news, at least in the forms I’ve been gorging on it since 2016, is neither good for my emotional well-being nor essential to the health of the republic.
The idea struck me at a holiday dinner with close friends in Charleston, S.C., where I was the only journalist at the table. Our cheerful conversation darkened like a sudden squall in the harbor when it turned to the news. One woman, an intelligent, well-read friend for whom I have great respect and affection, posed a serious question to me: “Is there anywhere you can go for just good news?”
I almost choked on my oyster. “No,” I replied, after a brief pause. “The news is what happens. Not what you wish had happened. It’s not news if the mayor was almost in a life-threatening car crash. It’s big news if he was.”
There are exceptions. “Man Lands on Moon” was both good and big news. Your hometown winning the World Series is good news. But big news is urgent, and bad news is almost always more urgent than good news. Also, my experience is that people may think they want good news, but there’s no evidence that they will pay for it.
Only days later, the story of Davyon Johnson popped up. The Oklahoma sixth-grader managed to save two lives in one day. First, he used the Heimlich maneuver on a classmate who was choking on a bottle cap, the Associated Press reported. Later that same day, according to the Muskogee Phoenix, he helped a woman escape from a burning house.
Then CNN aired footage of two baby bald eagles hatching. Suddenly, I was awash in good news.
It didn’t last. Part of the problem with “news” is that there isn’t really enough of it, good or bad, to fill the 24/7 maw opened up by cable news, talk radio and social media. I was there in Atlanta in June 1980 when Ted Turner threw the switch to launch CNN, which he informally called “the news channel,” as in “How could anybody not watch the news channel?” I had written a page-one profile of his venture for The Wall Street Journal which began with the question “Is America ready for Ted Turner?”
It was the wrong question. It should’ve been: “How can they possibly fill 24 hours with news?”
CNN programmers talked then of all the stuff they planned to cover: exercise, pet care, home repairs, farm news and the like. But they soon discovered “Crossfire,” which featured two angry White males spitting at each other over politics. The rest is history. The Reagan administration’s FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine; by 1996, we had Fox News on cable TV and Rush Limbaugh on the radio.
Today, we have the fearmongering likes of Dan Bongino succeeding Limbaugh on the radio and upping the game as a social media mega-troll. The disinformation game is wide open to anyone: Russia, China or a former president who can’t admit he lost an election.
In this toxic media stew, I can fine-tune whatever flavor of “news” turns me on, and I can even delude myself into believing that by staying absolutely current on my Twitter feed, I can somehow contribute to saving democracy.
But who am I kidding? Whether I know within minutes every detail of the cloakroom maneuvers aimed at reviving Build Back Better is not going to affect its fate. I don’t need to hear everything Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said today. Also, spare me the gibberish uttered by former president Donald Trump on his tin-can-and-string-memo-to-journalist-to-Twitter telegraph. If the news is big enough, it will find me.
I don’t intend to stop fretting about my country. Nor will I give up reading the newspapers and magazines I deem essential to understanding the world around me. But I am planning a crash news diet.
What to take off the plate? I subscribe to way too many “insider” newsletters, whose pundits fill me with dread and anxiety each day. Maybe I will allow myself two? Or three? I follow far too many people on Twitter, which results in a tornado of nightly angst. I plan to cut my “following” list ruthlessly. And I already have forgone most cable news.
As another year of certain mayhem begins, I hope my attempt at moderation renders the desired calming effect. I would dread having to take the next step — cold turkey — as I did to kick cigarettes years ago. Two addictions with one big difference. Smoking kills you. News, in the proper dose, is healthy. And for me, a life with no news might not be worth living.