In every story of vanquishing monsters there comes a moment when the beast is seemingly slain and the hero breathes a sigh of relief. But of course they breathe it too soon and the beast recovers — stronger still somehow — and the battle continues at a yet higher intensity until at last the beast is killed for good.
So I hesitate to speak too soon. But I think the beast is done for.
This metaphorical monster of which I speak is The News; the top-down, global, partial, distorted, agenda-laden, advertising-fuelled, fear-peddling leviathan that has been swimming at the edges of our lives for as long as we can remember.
It still thrashes and moans and bleats, but these are the convulsions and rattles of death. It is not long for this world.
The full story of the death of news has yet to be written. But here is a sketch of a few pivotal scenes that will be useful to future storytellers.
What Hath God Wrought?
The news as we know it began with four words — “What Hath God Wrought?” This was the ominous, prophetic, suitably apocalyptic (which is to say American) first telegram sent by its inventor Samuel Morse from a Baltimore railroad station to the Capitol.
With a few taps, a mere handful of dots and dashes, news was unmoored from geography in a way that Hermes — God of messengers, travellers, but also of thieves and merchants — could have only ever dreamed of.
(Hermes is also God of the Internet of course, it being the perfect amalgam of every vocation listed in the previous sentence.)
News could now be transmitted from sea to shining sea, and soon across vast oceans without the need of an intermediary or great lengths of time. The old world and the new world became one world. The beast stirred.
Thoreau was one of the few contemporaries of this time whose grumblings of dissent towards this invention have survived. Evidently, even in 19th Century New England “dopamine detoxes” had a way of bringing about clear vision and an ability to see through the nonsense of the moment.
As Thoreau famously quipped:
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
And he was right. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it is necessarily worthwhile. Just because Maine and Texas could talk to each other didn’t mean that they should.
After enough use, a tool has a way of changing the user. The medium is the message, as they say, and the meta-message of telegraphy, and the newspapers that followed in its wake, is that fast and sloppy is always better than slow and careful and that something, anything, is always better than nothing.
The script of the present age was first written in Morse code.
Advertising Advertises Advertising
And so it went. Newspapers grew in stature and circulation in tandem with the scale and sophistication of the advertising that bankrolled them. Simple, mostly honest, factual copy for comestibles and haberdashery soon evolved into silver-tongued copy for snake oils and quackery. Dry reportage on local events and the minutiae of governance evolved into smear campaigns, grandstanding, sentimentality, giveaways, manufactured scandals and trends, sensationalism and all of the other tricks in the yellow press playbook.
Once a certain base level of success is reached the purpose of any organisation becomes its own perpetuation. Advertising advertises advertising. School teaches you to value education institutions and their credentials above all else. And the news teaches that the news as a concept is important. This is the news behind news. How convenient.
So whether the product you buy improves your life or not, whether your education makes you a better person, or if keeping up to date on the news makes you a self-actualised citizen or merely a fearful consumer, is entirely incidental. The perpetuation of the given industry is what matters. Not you.
If this cynical idea is true (and it is) then the news that makes you consume the most news is the only news worth disseminating — worth creating. Thus all news is fake news and it always has been, and the whole thing is a disempowering ruse from the perspective of the consumer.
In fact, the term “Fake News” itself is a beautiful little piece of rhetorical dialectic brinksmanship as within it is the implication that though some news is fake, there is other news, Real News, authentic news that it is your purpose and duty to imbibe as a corrective to all of that nasty fake stuff. Thus the perpetuation continues apace and you never formulate the fatal question of “why should I bother reading or watching the news at all?”
Polarisation and partisanship keep you from this question by design.
But the truth is this, if the game is rigged, the only way to win is to not play. If the game is rigged, the intelligent move is to grab the ball and go home.
The View From Somewhere
It’s a hard sell, I know. Against the cacophony of hundreds of news outlets and hundreds of millions of social media accounts all shouting each other down I am telling you to simply disregard the whole thing. Not just the side that disagree with you (because make no mistake at this point in time you have been algorithmically shepherded to a “side”) but the whole infernal game.
Shrugs don’t count for much in an attention economy but they are the way out of the mess for non-combatants caught in the crossfire. The Socratic, “I don’t know” and the Johnny Rotten-esque, “We don’t care!” are not so much white flags as they are bullet-proof vests. Nonsense can’t penetrate your psyche if you don’t first grant it your attention. The monster that we mentioned in the beginning is like so many mythical creatures in that it can only pass the threshold if you first offer it your consent.
And I believe that slowly but surely more people are rescinding this welcome. This pandemic year has driven institutional trust to a historic low. It certainly feels that way when people talk freely among themselves anyway. Perhaps this was necessary. Perhaps this is what the world needed to move forward, a return to a bottom-up, localist orientation where the news is once again rooted in specific places and communities. Perhaps rather than having nothing to communicate it is more a case that Maine and Texas can’t communicate with each other without talking over each other or fighting.
Perhaps Maine and Texas need to get to know themselves better first. And perhaps — in fractal fashion — this applies to all of us. We need to first clear our vision by removing the motes from our own eyes.
And perhaps the thing that has been impeding this is that still screaming but slowly bleeding beast called The News.
Read more at thomasjbevan.substack.com.