Stupid Times, Stupid Media

Stupid Times, Stupid Media

On a somewhat regular basis, I see friends and followers on social media commenting on news stories with the observation, “What a stupid time to be alive.” Generally speaking, they are referring to policies or statements which they dislike. However what I find more disconcerting about the present state of media is not so much the promotion of views with which I strongly disagree – every dog must have its day – but rather the almost cavalier attitude that we have taken toward the media that we consume. For not only are we failing to question the basic newsworthiness of what we read, but we also seem not to question the way in which that news is being presented to us.   

Whether or not something is newsworthy has traditionally been a topic for editors and reporters to fight over, but of late the standards for what deserves both publication and promotion seem to have been largely abandoned. For example, recently an individual made a video mocking former London Mayor Boris Johnson, in the wake of the Brexit campaign, and then uploaded it to a website of ill repute. This is not newsworthy, or at least, it is a news item of such miniscule importance that it is hardly worth sharing with the entire planet. Nevertheless this story was not only reported, it was actively promoted as a leading headline on Facebook for hours.

This morning, to provide another example, the Drudge Report tells us – in that appalling approximation of English which we have come to expect from that site – that “Women more s*x with robots than men 2025…’Robophilia’ revolution…” This headline, if one can call it that without a verb, points the reader to an article in The Daily Mirror which is so outrageous that I will not link to it here. As it happens, there is no news here, only a spinning out of one individual’s bizarre theories, or more likely fantasies. Nevertheless, its presence on the Drudge site gives it a false veneer of being an actual news story.

While many news stories we read today are about utterly stupid topics, there is also a predilection for covering subjects which, heretofore, were considered too unseemly for general publication. Try to imagine your grandmother opening the newspaper in 1940 and reading, “American women groom their p*bic hair, for diverse reasons”, as Fox News reported this morning, and you will see what I mean. However the way in which many otherwise legitimate news stories are presented to us, in the same prurient style as the foregoing, ought to give us pause. Are these news outlets actually giving us the real story when they resort to clickbait headlines?

Yesterday, for example, Mashable declared that “31 scientific societies just told Congress to take their climate denial and shove it” – an occurrence which would be rather surprising news indeed, but for the fact that this headline is untrue. The signatories to a letter, which you can read here, presented their concerns to Congress regarding climate change, and urged action by U.S. legislators on this subject. The document does not contain an imperative demanding that Congress “shove it,” and in fact presents quite the reverse, i.e., an offer of assistance, rather than a statement of dismissal. “We, in the scientific community,” the letter concludes, “are prepared to work with you on the scientific issues important to your deliberations as you seek to address the challenges of our changing climate.” Whatever your views on climate change, we can agree that the letter and the news headline do not match up.

At this point, no doubt my readers will present reasons as to why one must make allowances for such things. Surely, they will argue, there are significant benefits in having a more loose, diverse way of reporting on issues of interest, particularly in areas that might otherwise remain relatively unknown to the world at large. Far be it from me to invoke the sorites paradox in this context when, arguably, I myself am taking away a few more grains of sand by simply writing and publishing this very piece.

Yet I do wonder about the net effect of such lowered standards in our news media, on both our society and ourselves. If I choose to behave like a 14-year-old schoolyard bully when I am online, I would imagine that there is a greater risk that I will start to behave like one in the real world. Perhaps the behavior pattern will start with people I do not know, such as a stranger on a train or in the supermarket to whom I choose to be rude or unhelpful. Over time, perhaps it will come to affect the attitudes that I take toward work, social obligations, or familial responsibilities.

Never let it be said that I am unaware of my own tendency to overanalyze everything, a flaw to which I freely admit. However in this instance, I do think there is something to be said for better awareness in the media choices we make, rather than absent-mindedly allowing messages of questionable merit to seep into our collective consciousness. Poor scrutiny of the stupidity now routinely trumpeted by our media, it seems to me, leaves us but one step away from making rather stupid life choices ourselves. And while all of us, myself included, have made and will continue to make some rather stupid choices throughout our lives, we certainly do not need to be increasing the frequency with which we make them.

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Detail, The Ship of Fools (c. 1490) by Hieronymus Bosch

The Courtier in Aleteia: A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Check out my latest for Aleteia today, reviewing Diana von Glahn’s new series, “A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”, which begins airing on Catholic television networks tomorrow. In this three-part travel documentary, Diana chronicles Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Holy Land, and in her own well-informed, enthusiastic way she introduces us to the people and places of this sacred but troubled part of the world, where Christians in particular have suffered so much in recent years. Follow the link in the article for air dates and times in your area, or visit TheFaithfulTraveler.com

My special thanks to the always gracious Elizabeth Scalia and her team at Aleteia for letting me share my thoughts with their readers once again!

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Seeing Red: On the Perils of Pollen

I never suffered from seasonal allergies before I moved to DC. Growing up in a bucolic part of Southeastern Pennsylvania, surrounded by trees and fields, the pollen from trees, grasses, wildflowers, and other plants never gave me a moment’s concern. Now, however, I know when the trees are doing their business long before most people are aware of it.

It turns out I’m not alone. Record-high tree pollen has been recorded in the Washington metropolitan region, and allergists are swamped with new patients. Many say that it is not at all unusual for people coming from other parts of the country or the globe, who have never had seasonal allergies before, to develop them within a couple of years of moving here. Word is that the tree pollen levels locally are going to start falling off later this week, and that will help. Although later in the summer, when the temperatures and o-zone levels rise, there will be evenings when I will have to beg off early, because just stepping outside for more than a few minutes will cause me to sneeze and tear up without stopping.

I didn’t need a news story to tell me how bad things have been here, however. On Sunday afternoon my eyes felt so raw and teared up so much, that I had to hasten my departure from drunch in order to get home, take out my contact lenses, and stay away from the source of the problem. I’ve tried many over-the-counter allergy medications, but the only one that seems to provide some temporary respite from symptoms is good, old-fashioned Benadryl, although the effectiveness is not very long-lived.

If you are not a seasonal allergy sufferer, it is difficult to explain how debilitating it can be. The medicine makes me drowsy and dehydrated, but going without it makes my nose run and my eyes feel like they are on fire. It’s really a pick your poison situation. Neither is ideal, and in either case tend to engender a strangely lethargic, yet hair-trigger mood. The challenge is, how to avoid the impulse to lash out at the slightest provocation or inconvenience, when suffering in this way.

From my point of view, the first point of rational thought, when I make an effort to recall it, is that this is simply the price I pay for the privilege of living in the Nation’s Capital, in a beautiful neighborhood surrounded by trees, gardens, and parks. If I lived in Los Angeles, I would have to suffer from the effects of smog and being dependent on a car to do anything. If I lived in Denver, I would have to deal with bone-dry, skin-cracking air and the physiological problems associated with living at high altitudes. One could argue that it’s better in the Bahamas, except then you have to deal with hurricanes, poisonous spiders, and no-see-ums – swarms of virtually invisible, biting midges that apparently infest everything and make our mosquito season look like a mere bump in the road.

The second, and perhaps more important point, is that my own discomfort fails to negate the obligations I bear in dealing with others. While it is easy to perform my job duties in a temperature-controlled, air-conditioned environment, protected from the irritants that turn me into seriously angry guy, when my allergies do go haywire, that is no excuse for me not to make some effort to turn a kind word to someone in need, or provide help when I’m asked. I would never go so far as to adopt the British stiff upper lip and say that everything is fine when it most definitely isn’t, but acknowledging that I feel like crap and then going ahead anyway, seems to work.    

It’s hard to have noble thoughts or engage in pleasant conversation when we feel miserable. Yet the reality of living in an imperfect world is that periods of pleasantness are a part of this life. In the next, seasonal allergies will be relegated to Hell, where they belong. In the meantime, our choice is whether to go about our business and continue to engage the world as best we can, burning red eyes and all, or retreat into a kind of limp and ineffective self-pity. The former seems to me the far better option.

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