Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's the News?

            For the past five to seven years, I’ve been living in a news bubble, largely avoiding stories and news reports from the world at large. I hadn’t planned to do this. Until Pip could talk I listened to the news on the radio while we snacked or played. However, as he got more capable, this arrangement stopped working. He would start to play with a toy while I was listening to a news story and before I knew it the toy would come flying across the room. It turned out I couldn’t pay attention to both Pip and the news. One thing had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Pip. So, the radio got turned off. The bubble got turned on. Polly’s arrival a year or so later fully cemented this arrangement.

Now that Pip and Polly are in school, I suddenly have time to pay attention to the news again. I read the Washington Post at lunch and browse through the Economist – a gift from Ava – in the evenings. When the first issue of that magazine arrived, I was overwhelmed by all the crazy things that were going on in its pages: Russia has annexed the Crimea and is trying to take over more of eastern Ukraine? Large parts of Syria and Iraq are being controlled by some metastasized terrorist group I’ve never heard of? Police units are rolling out tanks in Ferguson, Missouri? A commercial airliner disappeared over the Indian Ocean and another from the same company was shot out of the sky a couple of weeks later? I wondered if the world had exploded while I was out of touch or if this was just a normal condition that I was no longer used to.

I also began to wonder exactly what it was I was supposed to do with all of this information. When I was in high school and college these kinds of stories thrilled me. They represented history in the making. They were context for understanding the world. They were data that I could use in my future life. The people and places in those stories represented a world that was different from the one I was living in, one that was more important, one that I could strive to join. Even in grad school, I read the news with a purpose. I was studying Islamist politics and geographies of capitalism and globalization. Everything I saw in the news had the potential to show up somewhere else – whether it was in an example in a paper, in a conversation with other students, or in some lecture by a visiting professor. All of this was something to know so that I could be a part of it.

            Now, on the other side of school and kids, none of that feels true anymore. As I have found myself lured more deeply into random on-running news-stories – Scotland is voting to break off from the United Kingdom? – I am coming to realize that in my present life there is little to no difference between reading the news in the Economist and flipping through the pages of US Weekly. In neither case am I reading for any particular reason beyond curiosity and escapism. President Obamas plan to fight the Islamic State has no more immediate bearing on my life than some celebrity’s hemline. Regardless of what I read in the paper, the most pressing questions I need to answer – how are the kids doing at school, when is soccer practice, what issues are cropping up at Ava’s work – are all hyper-local. The world where all these news stories are happening – be they the financial impacts of Brazils presidential election or stolen nudes of famous actresses – feels farther away than ever.

            This idea that the news is just another form of entertainment is not revelatory. One only needs to look on the main page at Yahoo to see Kate Middleton’s wardrobe choices and Kim Kardashians latest shenanigans intermixed with headlines about Russia’s geopolitical strategies and gun control questions in Florida. The headlines on that page target the interests of very different people, but they all appeal to the same instinct – a desire to read about some other world, a desire to step outside your own for a little while.

            What is interesting to me in all of this is what my reaction says about where I am in my life. I guess it reflects something of a mid-life crisis. The dream that I would be a part of these stories, that my world would somehow overlap or interweave with these, has faded away, leaving me unsure about how to relate to things I use to easily understand. I still want to read about the world beyond my doorstep. I’m still interested to learn what’s going on in Beijing and Baghdad and Moscow. But, to my surprise, I no longer want them to come closer. In fact on most days, I’m happy for them all to be just as irrelevant as the latest controversial pop lyrics, to be curiosities that I can read about, enjoy, and then easily put away. We’ve got plenty of challenges to work out within the four walls of our home. I no longer have the time or interest to claw my way into the news world as well.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I went through a similar arc in my own life. Every once in awhile I turn on the news only ot be reminded how it isn't relevant to me. I also find it triggers negative emotions: fear, anger, disgust, envy. Just another reason to avoid it completely.

  2. I agree with the j2jenkins and appreciate this post!
    For a few weeks our family has been watching the CNN Student News, a 10-minute, online hodgepodge of the latest world and local events and some soft news that aims to appeal to a middle or high school age. It was exciting for the first five days or so and my children (mostly younger) were thrilled [disclaimer: we don't have a television and they don't get a lot of exposure to this type of media]. The topics (ebola, Scotland, Ferguson, ISIS) gave us PLENTY of fodder for conversation and it was educational. Gradually, however, I grew disenchanted with it, especially when attempting to view it through my children's eyes, and I attribute that to the abrupt switches from death and destruction to the fox playing with a soccer ball in someone's backyard. The soft news, cheery music, and strings of jokes belied the seriousness of the frightening issues...and perhaps belittled them. Anyway, it showed me again that these elements are meant to entertain and make a profit as much or more than they are to inform. And I don't want my children thinking that is normal!
    There's probably some balance to be achieved as far as my/their exposure to world events and how they effect the way we live/perceive others is concerned but I'm not sure CNN or any of the usual media outlets is the way to that end.

  3. Thanks for both of your thoughts. The news as it is sold through magazines, newspapers, and especially the television can be a gruesome experience. I haven't yet figured out how to skim from that world for Pip and Polly, but it is definitely something to be taken in little chunks and with plenty of parental commentary.