How The News Makes Us Dumb

Michael Metzger

Press coverage of the death of Kobe Bryant reminds us that the news makes us dumb.

A week ago on Sunday morning, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi were two of nine passengers who died when the helicopter they were riding in crashed. The pilot of a helicopter apparently lost his bearings in flying too low to avoid a cloud layer.

The press mourned the loss of the Kobe, an NBA legend. But they missed the biggest story. Kobe and Gigi attended Catholic mass at Our Lady of Angels in Newport Beach early Sunday morning. They received Communion just hours before they both died in the tragic crash.

Why did most of the press miss this? Conservatives and Christians are apt to blame “the liberal media.” But Malcolm Muggeridge points us in another direction. A long-time journalist, he came to repent of missing the point when he converted to Catholicism. “Had I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be finding out what Pilate was up to.” But he lamented that “I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”

Muggeridge didn’t attribute this to the news industry having nefarious motives. Rather, he recognized how it makes us dumb. This includes Christians. This includes conservatives, liberals.

This is C. John Sommerville’s point in his perceptive book, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society (University Press, 1999). Sommerville is Professor of English History Emeritus at the University of Florida. He’s also a Christian.

Sommerville reminds us there is a difference between what is newsworthy (actual news) versus “the news.” In the past, newsworthy events rarely happened. For example, we know very little about Jesus’ 33 years on Earth. Most of it wasn’t newsworthy. Newsworthy events happen periodically, published in what were often called periodicals.

The “news industry” changed all that. It decided news is daily. Consuming it daily required daily news. Our attention became more and more riveted to daily news. The ultimate concerns of life started to get less of our attention. This is why the “news product” makes us dumb.

That’s because daily news is about change, not wisdom. We have to go elsewhere (i.e. religion) for wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context. News “destroys the larger context,” writes Sommerville. “You have to make each day’s report seem important.”

The best religions recognize this is dumb. “The whole idea of news—that for every 24-hour period there is an hour’s worth of reports that require our attention—would be considered by any of the world’s major religions a sign of being spiritually lost.” Sommerville wrote this in 1999—pre-Internet. Today, social media says newsworthy events happen every second. Facebooks posts assume the smallest minutiae of my life is newsworthy. That’s dumb.

Our dumbing down reminds me of a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” It’s rare in modern media. Most missed the biggest story related to Bryant’s death. Set aside whether you felt Kobe was a Christian (file it under: None Of Your Business, c.f. II Tim.2:19). Start instead with love. Love believes the best (I Cor.13:8). Assume the best about Kobe.

The Priest at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church said Kobe was active in his faith. Active Christians recognize the gospel is God “marrying” us. Believers are betrothed (married) to Christ when they come to him. Our lives are for preparing “to be presented to him as a pure virgin” (II Cor.11:2). Preparing includes receiving Communion.

Communion is a foretaste of nuptial union with Christ in eternity. Nuptial union is the husband entering his wife’s body. Communion is Jesus’ body and blood entering his bride’s body. Only those devoted to Jesus as their husband can rightly receive communion.

Active Christians also recognize that Jesus warned his bride to be prepared when he comes (c.f. Mt.25:1-13). Kobe was a sinner like everyone else, but in receiving Communion, he might very well have been saying he’s preparing to meet his husband. That would be good news. It’s a shame the press missed this story. Christians—liberal or conservative—shouldn’t.

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  1. Mike, thanks. Your post led to an important reminder in the CNN article referenced above by Joey Tomassoni – let his light shine through the cracks in our lives, and look for that light in others rather than looking at their cracks.

  2. Mike, so true! Your take on news, wisdom, communion, and assuming the best about Kobe. Alas – good news is NO news in the news industry. But look on the bright side: any good news you’re likely to hear will come from “close at hand” sources – with or from people whom you can rejoice with. That’s why Facebook isn’t so bad: you can rejoice with old friends even though you are far away. Facebook isn’t fake news – it may be that your friends’ stories might be the only interesting or fun or good news that you might ever see that day – because you know or “epiginosko” your friends.

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