The Day I Stopped Reading the News

“There is a far greater need for total-abstaining societies which would not read newspapers than for ones which do not drink alcohol.”
– Soren Kierkegaard

People act in response to incentives; and in the absence of incentives, they seldom do much. That’s why I believe in publicly daring yourself to do things: making it known to others in your life that you have made a significant choice and are going to hold yourself to it. This provides an incentive – others’ view of you as a person of your word – motivating you to follow through. I’ve done this with some of my most important decisions, like quitting alcohol in 2012, and discerning my vocation at Holy Resurrection Monastery (where I will return as a postulant on December 15).

Last Tuesday, I got frustrated with myself. After the preceding day’s announcement of the grand jury result in Ferguson, Missouri – and the subsequent violence – I wasted a lot of time staring at social media and news sites: reading news, opinions, news about opinions, opinions about news . . . ad nauseam.

It seemed like there had to be something to say, about some aspect of the situation or the popular response; or at least some insight of someone else’s, to take as a foothold to reach a point of clarity. But that “something” never materialized, and that foothold never appeared. So I sat in front of the screen with no insight to offer, wandering up and down the dead-end series of articles on Google News.

For most of my life, including two years as a professional journalist, I’ve enjoyed following and reflecting on current affairs. Opinion columnists have shaped my perception of politics, and much of what I know about writing and civilized discussion comes more from the influence of media outlets – albeit both as positive and negative examples – than from formal schooling.

But there was a time for me to leave journalism, and there is a time – now – to stop following the daily and weekly news cycle. When one can hardly learn anything meaningful from it, or offer others much insight from reflecting on it, there is little reason to pay attention, and good reason to opt out. (I should mention that I intend to follow news about the Church – which has more bearing on my own life – in a limited way. I also maintain my respect for many journalists and editors, especially my former colleagues.)

Having dared myself publicly to do this, I’d like to offer a few of my further reasons for tuning out the news cycle. If you feel your own relationship with the news has reached the end of its usefulness, you might consider doing the same:

1. The news gives us the illusion of being engaged with events just by having opinions about them.

With some exceptions, I believe that opinions – especially regarding high-profile incidents and public affairs – are a debased currency in the modern world. The rise of the Internet has brought this phenomenon to such an absurd point, that our individual opinions on most subjects are like the Deutschmark during the hyperinflation crisis of 1920s Germany. We cart around mental wheelbarrows full of opinions on every subject presented to us as significant; yet we are all familiar with the rejoinder that “two dollars and your opinion will buy you a cup of coffee” (or some less polite version of the same idea). Our opinions create an illusion of engagement with the world; but really, much of our inner editorializing serves no purpose beyond the ego-gratification of making us feel intelligent and astute.

It is said that a past U.S. president, confronted by a journalist who disapproved of his job performance, told the man bluntly: “Who cares what you think?” That struck some people as outrageous; it strikes me as a valid question for self-examination. Not all opinions about current events are worthless; but that line has stuck with me as a spur to do more than just form opinions about passing worldly affairs. If such matters are important enough for me to hold a definite opinion, then they should likely inspire me to do something more; and if they are only important enough to merit the mental equivalent of a pithy bumper-sticker, perhaps they are not even worth that. I agree with my Quaker ancestors as to the importance of “letting your life speak”; I also believe there is a certain wisdom in the words, “Talk is cheap.”

You are not engaged with events simply by having an opinion on them. And to broadcast that opinion into the cacophony of electronic discourse, is not likely to be the modern equivalent of making a stirring speech in the ancient Greek agora. Some issues of the day are genuinely worth commenting on, but in general the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Alexander Schmemann was right: “For indeed what you say is less and less important today. [People] are moved only by what you are, and this means the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, and dedication.” Sentiments and idle opinions are like cheap metals, compared to the “gold” of action, commitment, and personal influence.

2. The news gives us an illusion of connecting with the wider world, while we actually insulate ourselves from it.

We often suppose that the daily inflow of news expands our horizons – enlarging our mental world, connecting us to developments around the globe. Yet in the context of our individualistic consumer lifestyles, this is almost a pure illusion – like putting up pictures and mirrors to make a small, windowless room feel spacious and open.

In fact, a more pathetic metaphor may be in order. Compared to those experiences that actually broaden our horizons, most of our daily news-consumption is like a commercial DVD that puts an image of a fireplace on a television screen; or a video that entertains one’s cats by making the screen appear to them as a tank full of fish. I mean no disrespect to most journalists; my point here is directed to viewers, seeking something that daily reportage cannot deliver. The news serves certain purposes, but in general it is not a true window on the world or a means of connecting with it, any more than those videos are a real fireplace or fishtank.

An experience one can switch on and off, or toggle with another experience at will (between channels, browser tabs, apps, etc.), cannot be trusted to promote human solidarity or the emergence from one’s shell. The opposite is arguably true: we become disengaged voyeurs, experiencing futile frustration or smug satisfaction over distant events, while the world before us recedes and blurs out.

I think it is important to understand a multiplicity of cultures, traditions, civilizations, and experiences. But this is precisely what the news does not really do for us – since human life and experience cannot be condensed into a series of executive summaries, useful though those may be for certain purposes. If one wants to understand the human condition, a deeper grasp of it is undoubtedly found through the contemplative approach discussed in the Tao te Ching:

Without going out of your door,
You can know the ways of the world.
Without peeping through your window,
You can see the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go,
The less you know. 

Thus, the Sage knows without travelling,
Sees without looking,
And achieves without ado.

More succinctly, there is the wisdom of the early Christian Desert Father who said: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” This is not simply advice for monks: the one who cannot learn from the present moment, will learn little from any number of travelogues and dispatches. Reporting has its place, to be sure; but it will only open our eyes if it is used very skillfully, probably in quite limited doses rather than as a daily staple. Meanwhile, the truly expansive and enriching view is not that of a hundred postcards, but the clear sight of our own horizons and surroundings, seen through our own eyes.

3. The news distorts, and even inverts, our perspective on the things of time and eternity – making passing things appear more real than eternal things.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave concerns a group of people who, born and raised in a subterranean dungeon, have never known the world of real things, illumined by the sun. Instead, they have been transfixed from birth by the spectacle of a series of shadow-outlines created by statues – cut to look like men, animals, and various objects – and cast on the cave wall in the light of a fire. When told of the aboveground, sunlit world by an escaped prisoner, they dismiss the prospect of going there as pointless – preferring to compete in the never-ending game of identifying the shadows cast by the imitation-objects and the fire.

The parable applies wherever the lesser reality is preferred to what is more real. Hence it applies to the relationship between the created world and God; and likewise, to the relationship between the news now broadcast throughout each day, and the “news” that is really of ultimate importance. We obsess over things we will soon forget, and forget matters of ultimate importance. We must re-acquire a sense of proportion that we have lost through our fixation on the firelight and shadows: all other news is dwarfed by the Gospel, by the reality of Christ’s Resurrection.

I would not downplay the relative importance of many things reported in the press, especially to persons directly affected by them. But the most important thing in life is what lies beyond it, and our everyday choices which affect that destiny for good or ill. One way or the other, your soul will never not exist – and the things of this life must be measured by the standard of this truth. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat,” C.S. Lewis reflected. “But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

Kudos to the man who can keep a truly eternal perspective (which is different from mere religious moralism) while scanning Google News. But I am not that man – so I will join Kierkegaard’s news-abstaining-society, hoping to learn the self-denial that he described as “sobriety in an eternal sense.”

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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  • Viki63

    These are all excellent points.

    However I recall reading on this same website a comment enjoining more Catholics to create blogs, to make the Catholic worldview more available on the Net.

    I think while there is a time to abstain from reading news, there is also a need for a Catholic/Christian perspective to be presented. It may make a difference, if not to everyone, at least to some one.

    Regarding the problems in Ferguson, I greatly appreciate the Christian perspective offered by Benjamin Watson, a New Orleans Saints player, who at the end of his message wrote: “BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. . . .So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.”

    His statement — opinion if you like — impacted many people and made a difference. If there were no Christians posting opinions on the Internet, the world would be a more dark and dangerous place.
    I am sure that your prayers in the monastery will have a greater impact than anything I can write. But we all must do what little we can, so I will continue with my little blog.

  • OutsideTheGate

    Interestingly, this week I have been thinking of deleting all my bookmarks to Catholic Blogs for the same reasons you outline, too.

    Since Papa Benedict retired, it’s become a toxic, divisive, place by encouraging the very things you’re outlining as problematic in the secular. I want to just switch off, and ‘just go to Mass’, and not be ‘Evangelical’, ‘Intentional’, or anything else, ‘(TM)’.

    In other words, become just a person in the pews whom all these people despise (AKA the one’s they disparagingly refer to as ‘the average Catholic’, whom ‘we’ need to ‘reach out to’) as needing fixing and ‘transforming’, using their own totalising pet theory, project, or programme, that’s ‘the Final Solution’ which will fix the Church.

    Might one call it, self-absorbed Promethean Neo-Pelagianism?

    Most people would consider your choice of vocation a ‘waste’, but from reading your posts, I don’t know anyone more suited to the religious life owing to your grasp on reality, rather than what’s become the virtual ‘reality’ of here-and-now. My prayers go with you.

    Ironically, your posts, Benjamin, as well as a handful of others (and I mean 3 or 4 other posters, not blogs), are what are keeping me in there.

  • Pris

    I am a wife, mother, and grandmother. I was a NEWS-A-HOLIC up until April 19, 2013. that was the Boston Marathon Bombings. Like you Benjamin I sat glued to the TV, switching between newscast, making sure I didn’t miss a thing. I realized that was enough. I have not read a paper , read news on Internet sites or watched any TV since that day. (Including sports) . I did ask my husband to share with me ONLY and ONLY if it is IMPORTANT the facts so that I can pray for the situation. Where am I today, much happier, more at peace, and I KNOW God will take care of things. We don’t even have a TV in our house anymore.

    Have a Blessed Advent
    Pris

  • Nostromo

    Nothing new here.
    “The man who doesn’t read newspapers is not informed, the one who does is ill-informed.”
    Twain

    Or I like:
    “People don’t actually read newspapers — they get into them every morning like a hot bath.”
    Marshall McLuhan

  • Colin Kerr

    good decision!

  • IAmScott

    I’m afraid to give my opinion, as it only creates the illusion of engagement, but I think the big take-away from this is not necessarily “Go forth and read not the news.” It is summed up in the last couple of paragraphs: engage the news — whether reading it or writing it — with an eternal perspective. If the only way you find you can keep that perspective while engaging with the news is to not engage with the news, then, yes, “go forth and read not the news;” but if you can engage the news in a Gospel-ly manner, keeping the eternal perspective of a passing world filled with immortal, sacred souls, then by all means engage the news: *that* perspective is sorely, sorely needed.

  • Kelli

    Excellent! I personally haven’t read secular papers or listened to secular news for years. I seek my hope in the Eucharist and listen to God speak everyday to me others that I meet. All this news does is create noise and keeps us from our maker. This article was awesome. Thank you and God be with you today and everyday!

  • Vladimir

    Keep it up, it is good for your spiritual balance. When I got married in 1999 we have decided not to buy a TV set so as to be free from the junk it is usually on, except for nature or travel programs. My wife put it in an excellent way: I want to live my own life, not the lives of others. Now we have six small TV screens, that are happy, smiling, laughing, enjoying life, reading books, seeing short, mostly christian cartoons or films over the youtube. Actually, if you want to see some older and nonviolent fairytales on youtube try to type words like “krtko” that is Czech animations of a mole, or Russian Masha and the Bear, “Nu pogodi” also funny stuff to watch for kids.
    The news these days are really twisted, halftruths or no truths sometimes, politically correct only, etc. Who wants it? The other day I had a feeling there is so much information out there just trying to get into my had I almost fainted. I think it was some kind of an attack or a point the Lord wanted to make. Since then I just try to avoid it more. The silence is what we really need to pense over things that matter, over our sins, etc.
    If I want to read something interesting I open the spiritdaily.com, markmallett.com, pelianito.com, charliej373.wordpress.com. Thats it. 4 people of stature who have things to say worth billions of bucks, wotrth eternity I should say.
    I wish you to become a holy priest, who will love to listen to peoples confessions. Here, in Slovakia, where I live, we go to confession at least once a month, our priests have to work not sit around. A good cofession is like a good washing machine for dirty laundry. And who does not have a lots of spiritual dirty laundry these days?
    May you be blessed with all your readers from Slovakia in Central Europe.
    Vladimir, Slovakia

  • stargazer2012

    Excellent article!

  • Laura Y.

    Since the grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, NY, opinions have abounded, resulting in arguments, division, mistrust and division. Facts have been replaced by feelings and opinions and frankly, few really know what the full truth is about these terrible situations. The media is stoking the flames and we, as a society, are like sheep being led to the slaughter. Having an understanding of what is happening in the world is a good thing, but let’s face it: we have very little control over the vast majority of it. We must focus on those God has placed in our hands and in our daily paths: our families, neighbors, coworkers, customers, fellow commuters and those whom we meet. It is there that we must be Christ’s Body in a most tangible way instead of this virtual involvement. If one cannot adequately moderate his involvement in this virtual world, then one must cease and desist in viewing. For most of us, we need to know what is cooking outside for we must encounter that world outside, but we must keep it all in proper perspective and never cut off our noses in spite of our faces. God help us all…we are living in very difficult times.

  • My Favorite Untruth: Ya da happened “early this morning” downtown. In reality “early this morning” was a few minutes after midnight in front of a bar.

  • El_Tigre

    When I am approached to subscribe to a newspaper I answer, “Why should I pay to get lied to, when I can be lied to for free?”
    As a former journalist, apparently Mr. Mann has not yet comprehended how much the news is slanted to favor a certain political agenda.

  • Baseballmomof8

    Many blessings on you as you enter monastic life. May St. Michael the Archangel defend you in battle….

  • Baseballmomof8

    I really could understand the final points you made. I found that kind of thing happening when I had a Facebook account. I realized it was not good for my soul and shut it down… Have not missed it in 2 years….

  • carpenter

    I sympathize with your frustration in this matter. Personally, I am of two minds. I think as citizens we do need a certain level of awareness of world and national events. On the other hand I dismiss ALL major media outlets reporting as falling into a range between slanted to stupid and deceitful, agenda-driven garbage. So, for my own sanity, I turned off the TV and cancelled the local, liberal, rag years ago. I have a few new-sites that I peruse briefly, often just noting the headlines and I am more at peace, but I’m probably not as aware of important events as I should be. By important events I do not mean the current media hype of the day.

  • Jane

    I am so profoundly touched by your article. I started checking out on the news aover the past few years and I have come to recoil from my former “hobby” of sharing (or blabbing) my opinions on all things political. I began to realize that I should focus on what is within my sphere of “control”. Where can I make a positive impact? Whose lives can I touch in positive ways? I realized that I had become prideful and was taking pleasure in sounding like I had all of this supposed insight- when in reality I was merely becoming a parrot for the opinions I gleaned from the media. Your article gives meaning and definition to what I have been struggling with. Focusing on living the Gospel is the best way that I personally can- and hopefully inspiring those I encounter to do so also- is of far greater significance for now and for eternity. I truly appreciate what you have written. May God continue to guide you in this life and into eternity. Blessings, Jane K.

  • Charlie Johnston

    When I was doing radio long ago in Chicago, some of my colleagues in the media were rather pompously proud that working journalists had been exempted from mandatory jury duty. If we were called, all we had to do was show our credentials to get out of it. I stirred up a little buzz among them by noting one day that we were not exempted because of how important we were, but because legislators were trying to make sure the accused got a FAIR trial.

  • ColdStanding

    Stop being such a screen capture drama queen and do it already.

  • Ed

    The only newspaper I subscribe to is the National Carholic Register. They give the news from a truly Catholic vierwpoint and it is truthful. Their news is related to the teachings of the Catholic Faith.

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