How News Makes You Stupider

And why I stopped consuming it

Nick Veasey | Newspaper Man

I used to be a news junkie. I'd take tab after tab every day, but then I'd just need more the next day. One day I just quit, cold-turkey. I'm honestly better informed, or at least marginally less stupid.

I'm not saying that news doesn't have its place, but if you're trying to be a better citizen—as in a better person—it's not very good for that. For example, citizenship itself is "complacency, hypocrisy, and domination," but the news won't tell you that. You'd need to read a book. News is the art of surprising people within the context of what they already believe. It's not about questioning those fundamental beliefs, which would confuse the audience, lose advertisers, and go over the word-count.

I'm also not saying that news is manipulating you. I mean it is, but we're also manipulating the news as consumers. News is a cultural product that sits at the nexus of time, place, and power. It's hard to say who's controlling what. It's not that I blame the mainstream media (much). I just don't need it.

What I am saying is that news makes you stupider, because it does. News is the processed food of information, the Doritos of literacy. Yes it seems like food, but it's not food. It's an unhealthy snack. If you stop it you'll be fine because it wasn't giving you sustenance at all.

You can have less tabs open and still keep a tab on what's going on. If something really serious happens, someone will tell you. If you really want to understand something, you can read a book. Or you can just not know certain things (which everyone else is about to forget). Given how highly processed news is, this is probably better for your general wisdom. In this day and age, it's an achievement to be less actively dumb.

New ≠ True

One big problem with news is the 'new' part. Everything has to be new all the time, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

News is all tree! tree! tree! and rarely forest! For example, right now the news is fire! heatwave! flood! and rarely connects it all into climate change! Big historical trends are not new and therefore not news. They don't show up unless there's some personality or event making them 'new' again. But this is a strange way to experience the world. Imagine if you listened to only new music or looked at only new art. Wouldn't you be missing out?

What the news misses often misses are broad historical trends. It also misses long-term consequences; it will report on a disaster but then not on the lives that are changed, well, for life. The fact is that broad historical trends (the cumulative consequences of many different things) are what kill you and events are just how.

Take pandemics. Pandemics are really boring, but by the time they're "news-worthy" you're already screwed. Or climate change. Really boring, until it's sweeping your car down the street. If someone isn't visibly fucked right now, it's not news. In this way, news is the porn version of history. All fucking with very minimal plot.

Interesting ≠ True

News is also bound by the constant need to be "interesting", which comes from us.

As apes, we're mostly interested in killing, fucking, or eating or—in modern terms—war, celebrity, or money. Thus most news is still some version of "did that ape kill or fuck that other ape, or do they have something to eat?" Which is, I mean, fine, but not what most people mean by being better informed.

This leads to a world where Jeff Bezos edging a giant phallus into space gets nearly as much coverage as climate change gets in a year because of course it does. Have you met us? A giant flaming dick fucking everyone on Earth is our most primordial wet dream (for cis-men). It's not just new. It's interesting. It's also dumb.

News ≠ History

The result then is if you only follow the news, you're almost guaranteed to be an idiot to history. You would have missed the broader historical trends because you keep getting distracted by what's new and interesting.

Following 'centrist' or 'balanced' media is actually the easiest way to embarass yourself. The 'center' is always moving and will certainly be somewhere else in a decade, or even a year. In the past it was considered 'centrist' to accomodate ideas like slavery, or fascism, but to history those people were just wicked and dumb. Don't be that person.

Local ≠ Global

In addition to looking stupid across time, you can also look stupid across space right now. The unavoidable bias of all media is that it all has to come from somewhere, and this necessarily affects what it sees.

Every news organization is based somewhere, speaks some language, and is owned by someone. They all operate under some government. Every newsroom also shares a certain education, language, and assumptions; a culture in short. American newsrooms are 77% white and British ones are 94% white and everywhere is mostly male. This all introduces cultural bias. You can't help it.

A paper from New York or state media from the UK simply cannot cover everywhere objectively. The idea that white people can step into a million different conversations without even speaking the language is just colonial hubris. This bias is fervently denied, but you can see how it warps the English language itself.

Take words. American media calls Muslims terrorists but not white people. They talk about 'corruption' everywhere but their own very corrupt countries. German media will not use the words 'apartheid' or 'colonialism' to refer to Israel at all. Words matter, and in this case editorial is changing the meaning of words.

Then take grammar. All over the world, the passive voice covers up state killings (suspect was killed in encounter, children have been killed) and makes other people into enemies (suspect killed police, terrorists killed children). Even sub-editing introduces cultural bias.

While westerners have gotten used to discounting Russian or Chinese state media (labeled "state-affiliated media" on Twitter) they don't do this for themselves (the state-owned BBC gets no such label). And they should. We all should.

Otherwise you're getting dragged into this state's beef with that state, or that Cold War, or these people's cozy relationship with those despots. It's actually exhausting to be reading critically all the time, which is why I opt out. You might miss some stories, but at least you're not getting actively stupider.

Business ≠ Beneficence

The biggest bias any media has is that it's a business. It's either selling a product or selling you. All mainstream media has to exist in a market, governed by a state, serving consumers, and producing capital returns. Journalists are constantly told to follow the money, but never follow up on their own paychecks.

Journalists depend on access, their livelihoods depend on advertising or sales, and their labor is all owned by someone else. The owners are, by definition, rich people or powerful governments. What does speaking truth to power mean when you're part of the power structure?

The fact is that 'unbiased' is just a marketing pitch used to sell a product where the only differentiating feature is bias. People watch Al Jazeera instead of CNN because they like the bias better, because that perspective aligns more comfortably with theirs. Nobody is selling water here, it's sugar water, you need all the cultural context to give it any taste at all. In news the flavor is bias.

Which brings me back to my core point about mainstream media. It's fizzy drinks. It's junk food. It's information porn. You can get sustanance and satisfaction in other ways.

How To Be Less Stupid

The point here isn't "Yah! Burn the mainstream media!" The point is to treat it like junk food and just use it critically and sparingly. If you don't want to be counting propaganda calories all the time, just don't consume it at all. It's counter-intuitive, but you'll actually end up better informed.

Since I stopped reading the news (I never watched TV news) I just hear about stuff through human beings, either in-real-life or on Twitter. My ape brain can understand where people are from and what biases they have, it's much easier to triangulate some dim sense of reality this way. Being unbiased is not a thing, it's a marketing gimmick used by the dominant ideology of the day. It's guaranteed to be historically and globally wrong.

To understand the world I instead look at the world, I find local media from the places being talked about, or follow people that actually live there. We don't live in an era where everything has to be white-mansplained to us, colored people have Internet. If I really want to understand something I read a book. I often read completely unrelated books that connect in ways I didn't anticipate.

And there's lots of things I just don't hear about, or hear about later. And I'm fine with that. Reading the news every day gives you the illusion that everything is knowable, and a greater bit of wisdom is understanding that nobody knows shit.

For me the point of reading the news was to understand what's going on but I was reading that shit every day and just getting stupider. I wanted to be a better person but the best I could be was the average of other peoples prejudices. So I just stopped. Now if the news does poke into my life I read it much more critically, meaning usually not at all. I won't say that I've gotten smarter, but I will say this. I'm less actively dumb.

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