Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's Wrong with the Press of Daily News?
A Book Review

Back in November I borrowed How the News Makes Us Dumb The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, by C. John Sommerville.  It was sitting on the shelf in the guest bedroom in the home of a friend who was taking exceptionally good care of me on an overnight stay.

There were many books I could have chosen but I picked up this one because I didn't like the title.  I don't like being told I am dumb, even when I'm  aware of the severe limitations anyone of us has, myself most certainly,  in vast and multiple realms.  Shouldn't I be reading more news to learn more about the world at large?  Why did my friend have this book?

I read chapter 1 before I fell asleep and got interested enough that I wanted to continue.

My friend, an avid reader, told me in the morning that she had not read the book yet herself, but was quite willing for me to borrow it and read it first.  She said the title had already reminded her to keep her reading heavily weighted in the history, biography and literature realms. When I got home with the book, I got busy with other things, but this last week, after a particularly heavy week of news reading, I picked the book up and was again drawn in and questioning my own response to, and my occasional immersion in,  the available daily leads and speculations of the media.

It isn’t as one might suspect, a book about the alleged bias of the news, be it conservative or liberal editors in question. It’s not about techniques of linguistic or factual manipulation. It’s not about journalists using events or people to become celebrities themselves. Nor is this book focused on the sheer incompetence of some journalists or the daunting tasks of what it would take to be an expert in the multiple realms that journalist wind up covering. It’s not about the sound bite oversimplification of television news or the concentration of news to a few corporate chains. Sommerville says that while all these issues worry him, that all these critiques have already been written as well as futile recommendations to improve the news industry by people who believe that daily news is important.

Critique of the news media is certainly not new.  Sommerville suggested  a snippet of Thomas Jefferson's critique could be stitched on a sampler.  Wanting to see the context I searched  the world wide web and found that when John Norville wrote to Thomas Jefferson  in 1807  "It would be a great favor, too, to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years." he  received a reply in which Jefferson first recommended authors to read on government and history, then very specifically critiqued  newspapers:
 To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, `by restraining it to true facts and sound principles only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. . . . I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.  (see Jefferson's complete letter at

Sommerville's book isn't new either. It was released in 1999. The irony is the fact that the examples are not up to date and that actually helps demonstrate the thesis of the book. As he says in his preface,        “Items in the news always seem a little homeless and disconnected when we stumble on them later. We have forgotten what they once meant, what the bigger picture was. That is because the news industry succeeded in destroying the context of those items, which is the best way to make money off them."

Sommerville, also author of a more academic book on the history of the news industry, says that in the three hundred year history of the industry it has developed in line with its essential nature and now at maturity demonstrates its essential flaw. His concern is the way in which “daily news” deconstructs our experience of the world and blocks the higher mental processes.

The industry isn't likely to go away. Those news deadlined columns will  be written, the air time will be filled even if the story isn't known yet; the news is a changing tide with waves of conflicting information  flooding in daily. As it says on the back of the book,  this is a book for those "dissatisfied with the state of the news media, but especially for those who think the news actually does inform them about the real world."

So if the news can’t be fixed, and Sommerville does make a good case for that, and one wants to be aware and informed on important events, wants to be an informed citizen in ever widening circles, local community, state, nation, the world, what is one to do?  Here's part of Sommerville's answer:  “If news were just one of the many things that we read each day, it wouldn’t have the same impact. If we would read science, the classics, history, theology or political theory at any length, we would make much better sense of today’s events.” Page 16.
This book is really about changing our relationship to the news media and that starts with being more aware of  how the news media is a flawed vehicle of social bonding and how important it is to be in our world rather than simply observe it through the lens of the news industry.  Sommerville thinks we, the consumer, have acquired an addiction, and news people are just supplying the market.

It is a short book, 150 pages.

“It will take a short book to show all the ways that dailiness constitutes a bias all by itself. Of course dailiness is necessary if we are to have a news industry. And that is why the news can’t be fixed. Consuming this industry’s ‘news product’ actually makes us dumb.” Page 10  

Sommerville's last chapter,Virtual Society or Real Community,  makes it evident that he is a historian and a caring citizen of this day.  He is an encourager and has real suggestions for how you can "personally learn to inhabit your world instead of just observing it...  Let's not think what we must all do. That is the way of the news-addressing us in the anonymous voice of an imagined public..."

I'll be giving this book back to my friend this next week when I get a chance to see her again in person.  Maybe she will read it now...maybe you might too?  Or if you don't, maybe you will read a good biography or get into a subject in depth...plunge into your own life and interests in some way that your world and the world of those around you is richer.  Tell a good story...we all need to hear one.


Nature ID (Katie) said...

Thanks for thinking of me, Jeannette. I'm sending a link of this blog post to my uncle, a retired history teacher who references Truman and Eisenhower. He and I have been in discussions about: traditional credible news sources (i.e., paper, radio, t.v.); the way internet news and blogs are essentially dissociated sound-bites with no follow-up; and how it's helpful to read other countries' news reporting for a different world perspective than what we usually get in the U.S. On a day-to-day basis, most of my concern is for those people I interact with in person. Thank you for sharing your review of this book.

Toyin O. said...

Thanks for sharing.