News That Just Makes You Sick
In 2016, the prolific author and economist Thomas Sowell gave up his syndicated column after a quarter century. A few months later, I asked him how it felt. He was delighted. The best part, he confided, was not having to read the news so assiduously every day.
Hoo boy. “I feel ya,” as Ted Lasso might say. A New Yorker cartoon captures it: As a man and woman stroll down the street, she says, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” Aware that my own consumption of news was depressing me, I lit up upon finding that the BBC had inaugurated a podcast devoted entirely to good news. Here’s the December 2022 writeup:
As the year draws to a close, we revisit some of the most inspiring, uplifting news stories of 2022, including a US man who saved a family from a burning house; a 12-year-old woodworker who raised thousands of dollars for Ukraine; how a long-lost photo album was returned to its family; and more.
What a relief! Except, when you try to click on the podcast, you find the message “Sorry, this episode is not currently available.” Figures.
Over just the past several days, we’ve been subjected to news stories like the person who opened fire at a Nashville school killing three adults and three children; the United Nations has issued another report suggesting that action on climate is urgent—“Humanity is on thin ice, and that ice is melting fast,” warns United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres; Russia is placing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus; a congressional delegation consisting of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert, Byron Donalds, Paul Gosar, and others visited the D.C. jail in solidarity with defendants who attempted to violently overthrow the government on January 6th; a bunch of Stanford Law students shouted down a federal appeals court judge, and the administrator in the room, instead of admonishing the students, joined in condemning the speaker; Israel is in more domestic turmoil than at any time in its history; the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition; and a new survey finds that the percentage of American adults who say patriotism is “very important” to them has dropped from 70 in 1998 to 38 today.
And all of that is on top of the fact that a feral, mentally unstable arsonist is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president again.
The news we consume is depressing and demoralizing us. The American Psychological Association estimates that “media saturation overload”—or, more colorfully, “doomscrolling”—is damaging the mental health of many people. It’s not just that the news is bad. When has it not been? Planes landing safely do not merit mention. No, in our age, the way many of us get news is in prepackaged units wrapped in outrage and blame. The more angry a headline makes you, the more likely you are to click through and read the story or watch the video. It’s not just that children are lying in pools of blood in classrooms, it’s that those people you hate are letting this happen by a) resisting gun control or b) voting for Soros-backed prosecutors who won’t enforce the law. Our heads are exploding not because we’ve lost our self-control but because we’re ingesting news that is designed for that purpose. It’s like dining on arsenic and then being surprised that we’re sick.
This news menu has torn us apart more thoroughly than any foreign enemy could. Even stories that aren’t twisted beyond recognition are tweaked for maximum clicks and thereby shaded to sound more ominous than necessary. Consider the poll cited above about patriotism. The Wall Street Journal article about the poll, conducted jointly by the Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago, is heavy on plunging arrows and dire trends: “Patriotism, religious faith, having children and other priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance to Americans, a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds.” The article suggests that the only thing Americans now value more than they did in 1998 is money—with 43 percent of respondents in the new survey rating it as “very important” compared with 31 percent in 1998. Swell.
But when you look at the crosstabs, you discover that while it’s true that only 38 percent of respondents said patriotism is “very important” to them, another 35 percent said it was “somewhat important” for a total of 73 percent who still value it. And while only 58 percent say “tolerance for others” is very important, an additional 32 percent say it’s at least somewhat important for a total of 90 percent. Or, to look at it from the other side, only 27 percent say patriotism is “not important at all” or “not that important.” Look, I would prefer that 90 percent of Americans endorse marriage as “very important” instead of 43 percent, but together with the “somewhats,” we’re still looking at 70 percent. You can make a plausible case that the glass is half full.
Or consider the U.N. report on climate change. The hysterical headlines are so common that they’ve given rise to “doomism,” the belief that humanity has no future. Many young people are reportedly so pessimistic that they hesitate to start families. “It’s fair to say that recently many of us climate scientists have spent more time arguing with the doomers than with the deniers,” Zeke Hausfather, a contributing author to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the Washington Post. Climate is a serious challenge, but not even the most alarmed scientists say that humanity is doomed to extinction.
None of this is to say that we can all relax. The world is full of awful news, some of it—like the transformation of the GOP into a January 6th-celebrating cult—is depressing beyond words.
But despair is a sin. More importantly, the evildoers of the world want the rest of us to give up in disgust—to tune out and leave the field to them. They would like nothing better than for us to conclude that it’s hopeless to try to tell the truth; that falsehoods travel faster than facts; and that we will tire of the effort to keep our values and our vision intact. That’s the best reason to stay with it.