Instant News, But Is It True?

In 1730, a London wag began publishing something called the Grub Street Journal. Its purpose was to expose how unreliable newspapers were by showing how rival editors printed conflicting reports of the same events. The Journal became extremely popular; but, ironically, people kept right on reading the discredited newspapers. As John Sommerville writes in his book, How The News Makes Us Dumb, "even when we catch the papers in distortion . . . we still come back to them for more. We know it is insubstantial fare, like enchanted food, but we still need that daily fix." How right he is. Sommerville played the Grub Street game in his own book. Just listen to what he found: The Wall Street Journal announced one day: "Scores on College Entrance Tests Fall." On the same day, USA Today announced: "SAT Scores . . . Up." On the same day the Washington Post announced "Iran Offers to Accept Iraqi Kurds," the New York Times announced: "Iran Is Said to Close Its Border to Iraqi Kurds." If I were a Kurd, I'd be a little nervous about that. Bad as these headlines are, "the news" is inaccurate in a much deeper way. News people claim to give us "all the news, all the time," as CNN puts it. But this is absurd. By definition, "the news" is limited to whatever some editor decides to include in today's broadcast or newspaper. But what about the thousands of other events that took place on a particular day that were not included? Some of those events may ultimately be judged far more important than the ones that grabbed the day's headlines. As Sommerville says, "Historians may eventually tell us that the world turned a corner at just that time. Maybe in some embassy or boardroom or laboratory or monk's cell some lever was pulled that set history on a new course." But these historic moments will never be "news" because they went unnoticed when they actually occurred. In his book, Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis urges against making young people read newspapers because, "nearly all that a boy reads... will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact." Moreover, Lewis adds, "most of it will have lost all importance. "Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism." Well, Lewis and Sommerville have a point -- and I say that as one who is a news junkie. But if we really want to understand what's going on in the world, we should discipline ourselves not to get hooked on so-called "instant analysis." So the next time you're tempted to catch your third or fourth "news update" of the day, admit it: You're addicted. Now I don't say stop reading newspapers or watching TV, but balance it out by reading a good book -- maybe a history book or one that discusses the great thoughts that, in fact, move history. It will help you to keep perspective and balance. You may not learn the details of the latest scandal -- but you will be acquiring something the Bible calls "better than jewels" . . . Wisdom.


Chuck Colson



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