Last week I learned that America is not falling apart. I did it by metaphorically burying my head in the sand, ostrich-like. I stopped watching TV news for a few days. I missed it, the way I would miss a cup of coffee in the morning. A habit interrupted.
The first TV news-free day was difficult. I cheated a bit, by looking at Google News, which links to some video news posted on YouTube and other electronic media and by more thoroughly reading my newspaper. Determined, I made it through but decided to take my plan day-by-day. Basically, I substituted reading for watching the news. My goal was not to stop receiving news, but to get it from more accurate sources. Finally, rather than committing myself to a week or more of not watching news, I set the goal of abstaining from TV news for as long as I could.
It turns out that was only three days. Not long, but enough to convince me my idea had merit. That lifted my spirits. The news I got in print form, including news from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, was different than that I was getting from TV. The same major events were covered, but less sensationalized. I didn’t get to see interviews with weeping parents of shooting victims, but I did learn more about the epidemic of shootings. I learned much more about the Israel-Gaza fighting instead of just seeing videos of bombed-out buildings and wounded children.
I also found that domestic politics is usually not covered unless there is news worth covering. Rather than learning about how Trump crashed a wedding at Mar-A-Lago, I read an analysis of why Republican congressional leaders believe Trump remains relevant to their efforts to win in 2022.
Reflecting on the change in the type of news I was receiving, I was grateful for no longer being bombarded with the worst, often exaggerated or false, bad news of the day. In its place, by reading the newspaper (including The Spy), I was reminded that this community, and the country, is mostly populated by decent people, working honestly to cope with the pandemic, economic downturn, and other challenges. I learned there is good news out there to balance out the bad.
Those who regularly read my columns may shake their heads and think, “He stopped watching MSNBC 10 hours a day.” I was not watching TV news for that long but confess to watching it for maybe two hours a day. If you watch MSNBC, you learn a lot about the threat to democracy posed by right-wing loonies and the problem of systemic racism. You also learn that the Republican party is rotten to the core. But sometimes that’s all you learn.
MSNBC’s focused news is not necessarily wrong. I agree with a lot of the opinions that are the mainstay of the channel. But it is no more “fair and balanced” than Fox News, NewsMax, and OAN. All these channels—those on the left as well as on the right–are a disservice to anyone interested in “the middle.” The middle is boring, so none of them spend much time covering it.
Watching one-sided news undermines our ability to talk to one another. If watching MSNBC or CNN convinces me that most Republicans are virulent racists, how likely is it that I will be able to exchange ideas with them? Convinced that they are beyond reason, I won’t get near them. Similarly, many conservatives, some of whom I would call right-wing, will not want to talk to me if they assume I am left leaning for the same reason.
What is to be done about the situation? Certainly not government regulation that would effectively control what is broadcast. That not only would be unconstitutional, but it would also be a disaster. It is next to impossible for any government agency to differentiate objective from biased news. Ultimately, the party in power would determine what we hear and see. Just like China, North Korea, and a few other places. No thank you.
To weigh in against government regulation of news content is not to say there is no role for government. In addition to the government itself ensuring that the information they share with the public is accurate, think PBS. While many of us occasionally disagree with a PBS news story or program, few of us would suggest PBS is as biased as Fox, OAN, MSNBC, and CNN. If PBS maintains its quality and independence, it will be worth watching.
Another “solution” I reject is the idea that I should be watching news channels promoting ideological perspectives different than my own. For me this would mean watching Fox and similar channels. No, thank you. I’m not a masochist. Listening to the likes of Sean Hannity isn’t going to make me smarter any more than watching Morning Joe will “cure” a Proud Boy.
One valid solution, at least for me, is to seek out trusted, unbiased news sources. In addition to reading magazines such as The Economist and reading newspapers I trust, I occasionally tune into C-SPAN and watch congressional debates directly. Doing so offers me an opportunity to listen to legislators debate. While the quality of the debate—on both sides of the aisle—is often lacking, you do hear both sides.
Finally, there is the option of talking to others with differing views from yours whenever possible. Such conversations can be especially educational. To make these conversations happen, all you need to do is to open yourself to them, find opportunities to engage in them, and be civil. If you are civil in conversations with others, you will listen to pretty much any differing point of view and remain calm. With a little luck, you learn something.
So, what happened when I stopped watching TV news? I became better informed, more positive, more engaged with others, and a bit happier. Since I returned to watching TV news, I now watch much less and consider it a strictly secondary source of news. For me, that’s progress.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and occasionally goldendoodles.