Apr. 27, 1999 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: C. John Sommerville, (352) 392-0271
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- News makes us dumb by dissecting reality, leaving the public with no idea of what to make of our times, says a University of Florida history professor and author of a new book.
Other writers have criticized media bias, incompetence and irresponsibility; in "How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society," C. John Sommerville takes a different tack, targeting the essential feature of news -- it's timeliness, which has degraded into a daily, and often hourly, barrage of disassociated facts.
"The news began making us dumber when we insisted on having it daily," he said. "Now we've lost our ability to discern truly significant news."
Because newspapers and news broadcasts treat each day and its events as being equally important in giving us daily installments, the reading, viewing and listening public fail to develop a sense of perspective about the bigger issues, Sommerville said.
"The world hasn't always had a news industry," he said. "The news used to come irregularly when something happened that was really important or interesting. The only reason for making the news daily is to create an information industry. If publishers waited for something to happen, they might be idle for weeks and their capital assets would get rusty. So they have convinced us that every day is worthy of the same attention."
Compounding the problem is that much of the news is odd and even bizarre, and the information is not so much a reflection of the world as what has gone wrong with it, Sommerville said. The result is only a small picture of reality, he said.
Many midsize dailies' coverage of international issues, for example, consists of devoting only about four stories to the world's 180-plus countries, hardly enough to develop any knowledgeable understanding of events, he said.
And with the limits of daily reporting, the news does not pretend to cover the big issues, Sommerville said. A good example was the failure of the Holocaust's original news coverage, with only a fraction of what happened in the death camps being reported, and reporters and editors never exactly sure how to place the calamitous event into a proper time and place journalistically.
"Unless one can combine one's news intake with a lot of book reading or Internet searching, one would probably do better to simply ignore the news," Sommerville said. "I'm serious about that. I haven't read a newspaper in two or three years and I consider myself informed, if being informed means knowing what the people around you are talking about."
Instead, Sommerville subscribes to weekly news magazines but makes it a practice to set them aside for a month before reading them. By that time, many of the issues have already resolved themselves, and he can ignore the speculation or hype over what will happen to particular issues in the days ahead, he said.
Perhaps the greatest irony in the information age is that news contributes to the decline of our intellectual culture by crowding out other intellectual activities, such as book reading, serious discussion and reflection, Sommerville said. In a televised interview, he said, actor Michael Douglas once credited his erudite reputation in the ditzy world of entertainment to his reading four newspapers a day, but unless he also reads other things, his brain likely is crammed with ephemera, not in-depth knowledge.
The proliferation of news has not even energized us politically, Sommerville said, citing studies that show long-term declines in the percentage of people who vote.
Paradoxically, the media are not the villains in these developments, he emphasized. "Ultimately, it is the consumers of news who are to blame," he said. "We have acquired an addiction and newspapers are just supplying the market."
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