How the news is destroying us
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I’ve been an avid news consumer for as long as I can remember. Yet I don’t recall being this agitated all the time in years past. I watch the news or read the internet for a few hours, and my skin prickles, my blood boils, my spirit withers. But mostly, I’m just angry as a m*****f***** all the time. Is it me? Is it everyone? How do I make it stop?
Barney in the Rubble
No, it’s not just you, Barney. It’s something like half the people I know anymore. And more like 90 percent of avid news consumers. I don’t see a Barney Rubble on my subscriber list, so perhaps you missed a column I wrote last fall on anger, titled “Our Anger Problem is Making Me Angry.” In it, I very much counted myself among these unfortunates, and I found it cathartic to write. For me, it was better than my usual release valves, like punching the wall or kicking the dog. (JK, fellow dog lovers. I’d rather coldcock my dear, saintly mother than lay a hand in anger on God’s favorite creature. Especially if Mom kept begging for table food.)
In my defense, I am half-Sicilian. One of my great grandfathers hailed from Corleone - Godfather country. So by blood and temperament, grudge-holding and revenge culture come naturally to me. Therefore, I’m often halfway triggered before anyone pulls mine, willing to find offense, real or imagined, wherever it may lurk. In fact, I find people who are easily offended particularly offensive. So I have my internal work cut out for me these days, since just about everybody is.
But I have some bad news for you about all the bad news you watch that’s making you angry: no matter how much of it you consume, they’re going to keep making more of it. You’ll never catch up. And so, if it’s throwing your system off-kilter, you’re faced with a dilemma: how many shots of poison can you drink in good health per day?
There’s plenty of good news out there as well – acts of kindness and friendship, feats of generosity and sacrifice. But as my friends in the news racket like to say, “Good news is no news.” A hard reality of the news trade is that ratings and clicks don’t get generated, for the most part, by telling an audience how you might’ve stopped on the side of a busy highway to help an old lady change her tire. Now if you hit the old lady with a tire iron, that’s news they can use.
And therefore, bad news doesn’t just exist, but it so often becomes amplified out of proportion to the frequency with which it actually occurs. Lately, of course, plenty of the bad news has not been fabricated or goosed. It’s been real and pervasive. You’re not imagining that baby formula has disappeared from supermarket shelves, that you’re paying five bucks a gallon for gas, that everything everywhere costs more than ever, that a worldwide pandemic completely altered the way we lived and interacted with each other, that a new World War could trip off at any time abroad, and that plenty of our politicians and the death cultists who revere them seem to be itching for civil war here at home.
Such is the rough-and-tumble of life in tumultuous times. (When, precisely, times weren’t tumultuous, historians can’t specify.) But it’s not the whole story. We often come to believe that is the whole story, however, because those who are paid to bring us the stories are also paid, in part, to provoke, to inflame, and to punch our emotional buttons, as all good dramatists do. It’s not necessarily their fault or an act of bad faith, so much as it is the law of good storytelling: a story with no tension tends not to be much of one. As George Abbott, the longtime theater producer-director-playwright framed it: “In the first act, you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.”
Plenty of storytellers, these days, just stop at the second act: let’s throw rocks! And such overstimulation of our aggressive impulses tends to warp our perceptions, the same way Twitter addicts tend to think Twitter is all that matters, because everybody they know uses Twitter. (When in reality, only about 1 out of 5 American adults do.)
This warping was driven home to me several years ago when I was reporting a story on Americans fleeing to Canada after George W. Bush’s second electoral win. After hanging out with several American expats in the land that Fleet Streeters used to call “the great white waste of time” (sorry Canada, but not my coinage), I hopped back over the border to Bellingham, Washington, about 90 minutes south of Vancouver, where I met up with Christopher Key, who was planning on cashing in his American chips, and fleeing north. If his name rings a bell, it’s because he is a direct descendant of Francis Scott Key, writer of our national anthem. Which to me, seemed like an act of infidelity – kind of like Prince Harry quitting the Royals so he could become a podcaster/Oprah groupie.
Key had done more than his part as an American, mind you. He’d served in Vietnam, where he got stitched with shrapnel. And he spent many years kicking in to our tax kitty as a dutiful capitalist. But now he seemed angry, thinking that our country had gone into an irreversible tailspin over George W. Bush (the kinder, gentler option many libs now practically pine for in the smashmouth MAGA era). It was Key’s impression that we’d become less tolerant, more mean-spirited and judgmental. He was somewhat sad to go, with all the good friends and neighbors he was leaving behind, but circumstance had taken things out of his hands. When I asked him about those good neighbors, however, he painted an entirely different picture of the country that he lived in, as opposed to the version that existed in his TV funhouse mirror.
He lived in a mixed neighborhood of Republicans and Democrats. They got together for barbecues and turned out to watch him perform in community theater. Having procured his ordination certification for 25 bucks off the internet, Key had become a Universal Life Church minister on the side, and so had presided over several of their weddings and funerals. They were a tight squad of people who genuinely cared for each other. It sounded ideal. I asked him why on earth he didn’t live peaceably in the country he actually inhabited, the one Uncle Francis wrote about, instead of boxing with Sean Hannity’s shadow, choosing only to see the polarized, bastardized version that was getting beamed to him from his cable box.
His answer: “I’m fucking tired, and I don’t need to rebuild this country. There’s a perfectly good one 30 miles away.”
It depressed me, but didn’t surprise me. Because so often, the “reality” we see through our screens feels more real than the reality we actually live. And our country has only grown angrier and more polarized in 2022 than it was in 2005. Plenty of us have had a part in that. And I can’t say I know how to stop it, though I do know how, in my own world, I can at least put it to the side and tamp down my own worst instincts.
I go outside, as often as possible. Just as they make a lot of bad news, they make a lot of outdoors, too – conveniently located right outside your indoors. And I use those outdoors to get away to places where algorithms don’t try to program me, to feed on my fear and paranoia and rage, so that they can serve me up more of it. Sometimes, to see humanity more charitably, you need to escape it. And for me, nature’s escape hatch puts the world right, because it reminds me of how beautiful the world actually is when vandals aren’t defacing it. These are places where I can feel God’s rhythms instead of man’s, the latter of whom tend to clap on the one and the three. I fish, I paddle, I walk my beloved dog, the purest soul I know, through the woods. I am never sorry when I do these things – even if the stripers want nothing to do with my fly, or an unexpected squall turns my kayak into a water trough, or the deer flies are biting through my shirt. It still beats subjecting myself to the anger-generating machines all the live long day. Because anger is a thief. It will steal everything if you let it: your perspective, your balance, your peace of mind. As the late, great outdoors writer, Nelson Bryant, put it in a letter to his daughters:
The secret I would have you know……is that even though the years will steal your fresh beauty, it need only be, in truth, a minor theft. What you must guard against is that jaded state wherein there is nothing new to see or learn. Marvel at the sun, rejoice in the rhythmic wheeling of the stars and learn their names, cry aloud at the swelling beauty of an orchid in the white oak woods, or December’s first snow; slide down the wind with a hawk and cherish the smell of woodsmoke and mayflowers, or the caress of a warm wool blanket; tarry by a stream where willows bend and flee tedium’s gray embrace. Cherish laughter and whimsy, but battle unrelentingly for what you know is right and be aware that the thieves of wonder can enter any heart.
Bonus zen: Sunset kayak we took last night on our home river in Maryland:
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Bonus track: The man from whom I stole this line, Jason Isbell, along with his band The 400 Unit and his lovely, fiddle-playing wife, Amanda Shires:
I used to be an avid news follower - but after 2016 I just couldn't take it anymore and, surprise surprise, I'm much better mentally. I don't talk politics anymore(especially not on social media) to anyone other than my significant other and a few good friends. There is much more to life than 24/7 news cycles. Thanks for this piece, Matt. Have a great day!
Asking why the media (digital and social and cable) make us angry is like asking why fast food is fatty, salty and sweet. They sell more of it when they push the buttons embedded in our nature.