Another half-conceived proposition, that perhaps I will work out in full, later.
Today, someone about whom I have great affection and count as a friend was quite concerned with criminal trial 2,000 miles away involving people neither of us know. While the conduct alleged in the trial is rather disturbing, I could not come up with a reason to be interested beyond the sort perverse attention we pay to criminal cases. I heard about and ceased to care about this particular event-there being too many matters which actually concern the life which I will have to lead.
I know that at a trial, everything depends upon happens between the particular lawyers, the arguments made, the evidence presented, the particular jurors and the judge. Whatever the outcome the trial, I cannot see how it will change my life.
My friend seems to me almost incredulous and perhaps even morally appalled that I do not care more. I said I hope anyone who has done wrong is convicted (someone did die, the matter of guilty is to be decided). What I did not go on to say is that even if the guilty goes free on this instance, it will not immediately (or likely in any possible world tangentially) affect my life.
But my friend was very much taken by the news. The news has taken hold of his attention. The reporters have told him what to think. And it is not just one friend. That is the real troubling thing. It is many friends. It is right and left. It is the trouble the availability heuristic: having seen this or that, the conclusion is drawn is that all that is relevant is known. If it is one the news, it must be true.
There is a way in which this news is utterly fake, even if no one ever lied. There is a kind of falsity which stems from outright fabrication. I imagine that utter lying is relatively rare (at least I hope so).
There is a kind of falsity which stems from the way in which a thing is characterized. This is far more common. It is the press secretary slant, or spin as it used to be called. There is a level at which spin is impossible to avoid, you have to use some word, you have to select some element.
But there third kind of falsity which is far more pernicious. When the X-media — how does one refer to the source for most reporting? The cost of reporting nationally and even more internationally must be astounding. The most honest and careful solo journalist simply cannot interview a senator and then fact check the condition in the senator’s home state and everything else: or if it is done, the work is slow and laborious. A corporate media organization can have reporters in three states and can obtain the information in one day.
There seems to be limited intellectual competition among the organizations, which is understandable since the reporters have the same education and the same economic pressures. There is a homogeneity which comes from being in a club and having certain acquaintances and contacts.
And so to the falsity: because of the bias we have to think that what we have seen or heard is representative of the whole and that we have a sufficient understanding of all that could be necessarily known, we draw the conclusion that what we know is pertinent. When my preferred media outlet tells me about something which I would otherwise know nothing about (and let’s face it, if it were not for the news, we would only know our own lives as we experience them in interaction with others), I automatically draw the conclusion that this matters the same way a mountain lion in my backyard or a package on step matters.
But that is simply untrue.
The fact that I give so much attention to this singular matter and think it pertinent to my life is itself a kind of falsity.
Here is where wisdom matters. The ability to not merely judge the veracity of what I am being told but also the importance of what I am being told.
The news teaches no wisdom: it would be bad business to have wise consumers. News is an entertainment product designed to inflame passions and direct attention. And when attention is directed in one way, it is necessarily unconcerned with other matters. That is a kind of lie.
A pick-pocket steals you blind by first stealing your attention and then stealing your money.