Every week, the so-called “news” provided by 24/7 cable channels and their web sites includes a hefty helping of gossip: stuff you really don’t need to know that is designed to snag your attention. Worse, this kind of stuff is addictive; you can find yourself thinking about it when you’re supposed to be working or resting or listening to your spouse. Like any addict, your mind drifts into wondering when you’ll be able to turn on the TV or check the internet to get your next dose.
Believe me, I speak from experience. Back in the 90s, my attention got captured by addictive stories like the O. J. Simpson and the Microsoft antitrust trials. They seemed harmless at first, but before long my brain was not my own. They took mental cycles away from the important issues in my personal life, and from the issues that needed my attention as a citizen. Instead, my thoughts and emotions were focused on whatever CNN* decided to hype that week, stuff that usually had nothing to do with me.
One beautiful summer day I went to a peaceful park, imagining that I would work out the plot holes in a piece of fiction I’d been trying to write. Instead, I spent the time raging about Elian Gonzalez. That was when I knew I had a problem. I had to go cold turkey.
That’s why the Weekly Sift is the way it is. I designed it to be the informational equivalent of a coffee-and-juice bar for former alcoholics. You can hang out here, stay informed about the things a citizen needs to know, and never hear about the Casey Anthony trial. We can even talk politics without agonizing over whether Hillary is going to run again or not**.
Most weeks, providing that hype-free space feels like enough. But these last two weeks have seen such an enormous concentration of addictive not-news or almost-news stories that simply ignoring them doesn’t seem sufficient. (I had to listen to President Obama’s climate speech on C-SPAN, because CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had junk news to cover instead.) Many of my regular readers, I suspect, have been captured by these stories, because it’s hard not to be. So this week I’m doing an intervention. If you’re obsessing over any of the stories below (or something similar), think about whether that’s the best use of your time, your mind, and your emotional energy.
As I said, I’ve been there, so I know how you want to respond: “OK, maybe I am spending too much time on this, but I enjoy it. What’s wrong with that?”
Alcoholics will tell you the same thing. They enjoy drinking. They enjoy barfing in your car. They enjoy waking up with a headache and not knowing how they got here.
Take a step back from your “enjoyment” of addictive stories and look at their larger effects. Do you really enjoy staying up until 2 a.m. to put the 400th comment on some internet article (because otherwise the 399th guy wouldn’t understand what a jerk he is)? When you finally leave the TV, are you happier than when you sat down in front of it? More relaxed? Better able to deal with the rest of your life?
Or have the gossip pushers gotten their hooks into you? Has your mind stopped being your own?
The Zimmerman trial. Trials are classic soap opera, but the only people who should devote day-by-day attention to them are defendants, jurors, and the lawyers and judges who are paid for their time. Everybody else should just wait to see how they come out. A typical day at a trial produces maybe a paragraph’s worth of new information, but that paragraph can take hours to unfold and then pundits can speculate endlessly about what tomorrow’s paragraph will say. Minus the 15 seconds it takes to read a paragraph, all that time is wasted.
The Zimmerman trial is particularly insidious, because you can almost convince yourself it’s news. The Trayvon Martin case as a whole is worth knowing about, because of what it says about racism in America. (So was O. J.’s case, if you could keep the long view and not develop an opinion about Kato Kaelin’s character.) That’s why I covered it twice last year (Trayvon Martin: the Racism Whites Don’t Want to See and Prejudice, Bigotry, and “Reasonable” Racism). When the trial is over, it may be worth looking back to see how those social issues played out in this context. But don’t waste hours pondering the daily drip-drip-drip of information.
You don’t know George Zimmerman, and whether he spends 20 years in prison or walks away free has no effect on your life. So if you find yourself reacting emotionally to obscure points in the rules of evidence, consider the possibility that you may have a problem.
The Snowden chase. Like the Zimmerman trial, this spins out of a legitimate news story, but isn’t news. As I explained in the previous Sift, Edward Snowden is Not the Issue. So far, Snowden has told us a bunch of stuff about NSA spying that the government should have told us a long time ago. Why he did it, how he did it, where he is now, and whether he’ll make it to a country willing to grant him asylum — it’ll be a great movie someday, but it doesn’t matter. The Fourth Amendment matters; the NSA spying on innocent American citizens matters.
Paula Deen. This story contains a tiny sliver of some important issues: How much should we care about what TV stars do when they’re off camera? And if you imagined that racism was ancient history in America, well, clearly not.
But those issues came and went in a brief flicker. Now it’s about whether she’s been sufficiently contrite, and whether white people are persecuted by “reverse racism” or “political correctness” or some other nonsense. (I’ve already said everything I have to say about that in The Distress of the Privileged.)
If you never watched Deen’s show on the Food Network, then the story has no effect on you whatsoever. If you loved her show, don’t worry, she’ll have another one before long. Don Imus came back; so will Paula Deen.
Aaron Hernandez. I’m a Patriot fan, I’ve enjoyed watching Hernandez run after making a catch, and I still refuse to pay attention to this case. O. J.’s runs were even more fun to watch, but his murder trial took up a chunk of my life that I’ll never get back.
I’m going to continue to worry about whether Tom Brady will have anybody to throw to next season. But the Patriots have released Hernandez and the rest of us should too. A jury will decide whether he’s a murderer. The rest of us don’t need to have an opinion.
What is news anyway? News is a recent or ongoing public event that affects you either in your personal life or in your role as a citizen. You could imagine doing something about news. If it’s large-scale news, it might change how you vote or cause you to contact your elected representatives. Maybe you’ll write a check or attend a demonstration or organize to help the victims. Or maybe you won’t end up doing any of those things, but you could, because the story affects your life.
Smaller-scale news concerns stuff you might do in your personal life: a new restaurant is opening, the highway is under construction, 4th of July fireworks will be somewhere different this year.
Sometimes news changes your perspective or opens your eyes to wonder. Apollo 17’s Big Blue Marble photo was news.
Addictive gossip raises the same do-something feelings as a war or a famine, but since it doesn’t really touch any part of your life, all you can “do” is invest more energy in the story itself. So you learn more details, form more opinions about the characters, speculate about what might happen next, and generally just get more and more wound up. Perversely, you end up more motivated to do something — but there’s nothing you can do — than you feel in response to personal and political situations that are crying out for your action.
Worst of all, the addictive story gives you a chance to keep repeating all those maxims that make you unhappy and prevent you from achieving your potential: The world is rigged against people like you, nasty people are everywhere, justice never really triumphs. Maybe your negative maxims are different, but you know what they are.
Take a step back and look around. Are you really enjoying this? If you never thought about it again, would it ever come back to bite you?
Let it go. There’s a world out there that needs your attention.
* The Fox/MSNBC shouting match hadn’t developed yet. It was a simpler time.
** It’ll be fine. Either way, there will be someone worth voting for, at least in the primaries. Trust me on this.