Today, only 54 percent of Americans read a newspaper during the week.1 For those aged 18 to 24, the number declines to 40 percent.2 Newspaper reading is falling off. Yet this might actually be a positive sign. The modern news business is based on a false premise that dumbs us down. So dumb that the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge late in life recognized how close he came to missing the most important event there ever was.
Muggeridge’s near miss began with a false premise. With improved printing processes and road systems two hundred years ago, the news industry changed from periodicals to newspapers. But to pull this off, the news business had to “pretend that the news is daily,” writes John Sommerville.3 This false premise – that newsworthy events happen daily – means that the product of the news business became change, not wisdom.4
Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. [The] news-industry profits absolutely depend on dumbing us down by deconstructing our world by dailiness.5
Stop and think sanely about this for a moment. What if no newsworthy events happened on Wall Street today? Or on Capitol Hill? Would the newspaper business simply post a sign tomorrow that read: “No publication today, nothing much happened.” I doubt it. Yet go online and find a newspaper story from several months back. Does the news of that day seem as important now as it was reported then? Probably not.
Returning the news business to sanity means treating the stories as puzzle pieces. To put together a puzzle, people first get the big picture (usually provided on the box cover). Then they locate the four corner pieces. For thousands of years, the Judeo-Christian gospel was understood as providing the picture as well as the four corners: (1) creation: how things ought to be, (2) the fall: what the world is like today, (3) redemption: what can be done to make things better, and (4) the final restoration: what things will be like some day. The daily news provides one piece – i.e., what the world is like today. It was historically religion’s role to provide the big picture and four corners, since “religion has traditionally been the arena in which we have entertained the biggest questions.”6
This is why the decline in newspaper reading among younger people might be a positive sign. Studies indicate that overall reading in new media has more than compensated for the decline in old media.7 Yes, younger people are reading even more. Second, “meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek,” wrote educator John Gatto.8 Younger people might be saner by roaming the more open ranges of the Internet where at least there’s a more level playing field for religion. Third, the rising use of the Internet is not necessarily leading to social retardation.9 “If anything, the Internet seems to have a positive effect on social interaction, and it tends to increase exposure to other sources of information.”10 Declining daily newspaper reading is a positive sign if it leads to younger readers being exposed to a more vibrant Christian faith.
I still love reading the newspapers. But I ignore the flotsam. To do this, University of Southern California President Steven Sample says the best leaders do not keep up with the popular media reading magazines and newspapers. They rather utilize their time reading the classic texts, which qualify as “four hundred years old or more and are still widely read today.”11 The last time I checked, the Bible is over four hundred years old and is still being widely read today. It can help us sort out the jewels from the junk.
Woody Allen once observed that the problem with life is it’s so daily. The same holds true for the news business. Malcolm Muggeridge understood that daily news can be a detour. “I’ve often thought… that if 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 wanting to sign up Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and… I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”12 We don’t have to stop reading newspapers. Just don’t expect them to get the Christmas story right without a cover picture and corner pieces.
1 The broadest measure, which the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has used, asks if a person reads a newspaper “regularly” without specifying weekday or Sunday.
2 Scarborough Research, unpublished data, www.scarborough.com. Each year, each year Scarborough surveys a random sample of more than 200,000 adults 18 and over using a combination of a telephone interview and a mailed survey.
3 C. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society (University Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1999), p.12
4 Ibid, p.14
5 Ibid, p.14
6 Ibid, p.50
7 Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.122
8 John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education (Philadelphia: New Society, 1992), p.3
9 Castells, p.122
10 Castells, p.121
11 Steven Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), p.56
12 Sommerville, p.54