A matter of perspective and proportion…

I really need to go through the notifications on my iPad and turn some of them off. Or turn most of them off.

I would start with that irritating app called “Apple News,” except… occasionally, it offers me something interesting from The Wall Street Journal. I recently dropped the WSJ from my subscriptions, because I wasn’t using it enough to justify paying for it – and the cost is high, compared to my other subscriptions. When Apple News scoops one up to offer me for free, I can read it. And I like to check in with the WSJ – which has probably the strictest paywall in the business – occasionally. That app lets me do it.

So I like getting notifications when they have one – because I’m not going to be looking there on a regular basis. I need the heads-up.

Unfortunately, that means I get a lot of junk from it as well.

As you can see above.

But as you can also see above, they’re not the only ones hassling me. You’ll see notes from The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post. None of which I would want to turn off, because there are no entities in the world more likely to alert me to actual news, which is, you know, what I subscribe to five newspapers to get. (Well, that, and commentary.)

The problem comes when we get to deciding what “news” is.

As you can see, for awhile there last night, the most important in the universe was that Beyoncé has won a heap of Grammys. Which I suppose is important to her, at least. Personally, I have never cared for a moment about who has or has not won a Grammy, much less who has won the most of them. There was a time when I cared about who won this or that Oscar. But I quit caring about that a quarter-century ago. And now I’m not sure I can tell you clearly why I ever did care. It mystifies me.

But a lot of people care about things I don’t care about. For instance, I’ve noticed that some people – perhaps even some of you – take an interest in football.

So never mind me.

We have all these news organizations in consensus about the fact that Beyoncé winning all these music awards is the most important thing happening, so they must be right – right? In fact, it makes you wonder what’s wrong with The Washington Post, wasting time telling me about some dumb ol’ earthquake that has now killed – let me go check – 3,800 human beings.

But wait – that was a few minutes earlier than the really earth-shaking news at the Grammys. So surely the Post got on the stick later. Well, actually, I don’t think they did. I never got a notification from them about it, last night or today.

Which makes those slackers, well, my kind of newshounds, I suppose.

Now, you will protest that those notifications are merely a snapshot of a few minutes in time, and that those other organizations no doubt turned to actual, hard news later. Especially the NYT. And you’d be right – at least in the case of the NYT.

But you’d be putting your finger on something that still worries me.

You see, back in the olden days, when newspapers still roamed the Earth and I spend a great deal of time each day agonizing over what to put on the front page and how prominently to play it, editors saw it as their job to present news all at once, and in a hierarchy of importance. We assumed people had a finite amount of time in their lives, and didn’t want to waste any of it. So we told them the biggest news right up top, but gave them the other stuff, too, in case they had time for it. That was up to them.

We were able to spend time weighing how to present things, and in what order, because we only presented it once a day – or two or three times if we had that many editions. So we had some time to think before deadline arrived.

No more. Mind you, I think it’s awesome that it is now possible to provide news to readers right now, without having to spend the day using 19th-century technology to physically get a paper product to them. I used to fantasize about that back in the early ’80s – at that point, there were no more typewriters, and all writing was done on computers (a mainframe system), and I kept thinking, What if when I hit the button to send this to the copy desk, it just went straight to the reader?

And when that became possible, I rejoiced. But then something else happened. We went from being able to send stories out immediately to having to send them out immediately. No time to stop and think, How does this compare to all the other things going on?

No. Whatever was happening now became the most important thing in the world, the way things had always been on TV news – which was something I didn’t like about TV news. You could only see one thing at a time, so at that moment, there was nothing else.

Suppose you – like so many – didn’t agree with what the editors said was the most important news. That didn’t matter. You could decide for yourself. It was all presented to you at the same time, instead of this stream-of-unconsciousness madness that we have now: Now, it’s THIS is the most important thing. No, THIS is. No, THIS is…

And for awhile last night, that most important thing was that Beyoncé had won those awards – so I received a tsunami of notices about it.

Of course, newspaper readers can STILL see all the news presented on a paper’s app. Which is great. And it’s all freshly updated. And better yet, now the TV stations have websites where you can see a bunch of stuff being offered – not in any thoughtful hierarchy, but at least there’s a selection.

So that’s good – as long as you go looking for your news that deliberately, and consider it more or less holistically.

But I fear that not enough people do. I worry that too many let it wash over them the way the Grammys were washing over me last night. And I think it causes them to lose all perspective. And it causes the journalists to lose it, too, since decisions of what to cover and how to play it and what to send notifications about are now so driven by clicks.

At this point, many of you are rolling your eyes and thinking (as many of you habitually do), there goes that has-been newspaperman, reminiscing about how great things were in the old days. Which means you’re missing the point entirely.

It’s not about me. I actually love my iPad and the incredibly wide access to dependable news sources it gives me. In the unlamented old days, I wouldn’t have been able to subscribe to all these papers and received them while the news was still hot. And this is of great value.

But I worry very much about the effect these “news” tsunamis I’m speaking of have on society as a whole. It’s not just a matter of people being overly concerned with silly pop culture stuff. Hey, I love pop culture, as any reader of this blog knows. But the problem is, serious things – such as politics – get covered this way as well. It’s gotten to be all about the outrage of the day, the stupidest things that were said or done, the things most likely to drive us farther apart from each other. And yeah, it helps explain – not entirely, but in part – how Donald Trump got elected in 2016.

As I’ve said so many times, nothing like that ever came close to happening before that election. And I keep trying to figure out why it did happen. And this is one of the things I see contributing to it – this utter lack of perspective and proportion with regard to news…

25 thoughts on “A matter of perspective and proportion…

  1. Brad Warthen

    Whoa. Lot of typos in that post. I wrote it last night while dealing with some problems over at my mother’s house — one of which was loss of internet. Wrote it in Word between dealing with the Spectrum guys.

    I need to run back through it for another full edit when I get a minute. IF I get a minute…

      1. Doug Ross

        Meanwhile, John Fetterman is on his third day in the hospital following an episode where he experienced “lightheadness”. A video of him trying to make a speech on Feb 3 showed he could not put two sentences together and what he did say was garbled or 3rd grade level vocabulary. His election was a perfect example of the partisan nature of politics. “We don’t care if he is mentally impaired and not up to the rigors of being a Senator. We need that one seat!”

        1. Barry

          A mentally “impaired” Fetterman was better than a tv personality/doctor to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

          Fetterman won the election. His opponent lost.

          Just as a mentally impaired Donald Trump won, and his opponent lost.

    1. Doug Ross

      Great job reading off the teleprompter, Joe! That’s what we call leadership these days.

      He doesn’t dare do press conferences — fewer in the first two years than any president this century. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the data from https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/presidential-news-conferences.

      President Avg Press Conferences Per Month
      George Bush 2.88
      William J. Clinton 2.01
      George W. Bush 2.18
      Barack Obama 1.7
      Donald J. Trump 1.83
      Joseph R. Biden 0.88

      If you want to see the real Joe Biden and not the one reading off prepared speeches, check out the transcript from his last press conference in November. A long prepared statement followed by incoherence. This is not a man anywhere near his prime. Imagine him 6 years from now…


      1. bud

        Doug did you actually watch the speech? It was one of the best SOTU addresses I’ve ever seen. He talked for well over an hour. He was sharp and thoroughly owned the hapless Republicans. He called out the Republicans for their many decades long efforts to get rid of Social Security. And boy did they squeal like a bunch of stuck pigs. As Brad pointed out it is utterly irrelevant whether Biden has given press conferences or not. While I do believe Biden should step aside in 2 years his performance in the SOTU gives me confidence that Biden is more than up to the job now.

        1. Doug Ross

          I watched the first half hour. It was typical. A bunch of self aggrandizing statements interrupted by stupid cheering my the Democratic sheep.. followed by angry Joe the uniter going after Republicans while they acted offended.

          He is an old man in decline. Packaged and protected from exposing his lack of cognitive capability. But keep telling yourself Joe is at the top of his game.

      2. Barry

        No one cares.

        Biden had a very well done SOTU speech despite Republicans yelling at him during the speech.

        The last administration quit doing daily press briefings altogether and you didn’t care one way or the other.

        So don’t expect people to care when Biden avoids them.

  2. Ralph Hightower

    Mmmm… Kay.
    I had to Google who this year’s Super Bowl talent is. I reckon that I’ll mute the TV during half-time. I wonder if there’ll any entertaining commercials. Last year, some cryptocurrency firm blew $7 million for a commercial of a QR code bouncing around like the Pong video game from the 70’s.

  3. Ken

    The internet may not be the source of the problem you describe. Instead, it’s journalism that may well be to blame for causing a flattening of perspective that creates an appearance of equivalence between events. Scholar George Steiner, writing in 1989, before the advent of the internet age, observed:

    “The genius of the age is that of journalism. Journalism throngs every rift and cranny of our consciousness. It does so because the press and the media are far more than a technical instrument and commercial enterprise. The root-phenomenology of the journalistic is, in a sense, metaphysical. It articulates an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality. Journalistic presentation generates a temporality of equivalent instantaneity. All things are of more or less equal import, all are only daily. Correspondingly, the content, the possible significance of the material which journalism communicates, is ‘remaindered’ the day after. The journalistic vision sharpens to the point of maximum impact every event, every individual social configuration; but the honing is uniform. Political enormity and the circus, the leaps of science and those of the athlete, apocalypse and indigestion, are given the same edge. Paradoxically, this monotone of graphic urgency anaesthetizes. The utmost beauty or terror are shredded at close of day. We are made whole again, and expectant, in time for the morning edition.”

    So, this new thing under the sun may not be so new after all. In fact, you may have made a career playing a role in helping bring it about.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, to keep it simple, since I started writing a longer response and had to leave to do some work, and when I came back it was gone…

      The gentleman was describing something I slaved day after day to make sure the newspapers I worked for never did. And they didn’t.

      But perhaps he was reading the wrong newspapers, or didn’t know what to look for. I can tell in a glance or two whether a newspaper takes the trouble to make relative importance clear in its play of stories. Too many do not, and did not even in those days.

      I also sense that he’s lumping in TV here. And he was writing at an ominous moment, with CNN at the end of its first decade of 24-hour “news” — which meant filling every moment of the day and night with content whether it was worse such national and international play or not.

      That had a terrible impact on society, and on the average reader’s or watcher’s ability to separate the critical from the trivial…

      1. Ken

        “perhaps he was reading the wrong newspapers, or didn’t know what to look for.”

        Among other things, Steiner served on the editorial staff of The Economist, was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and was a Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. So I’m pretty sure he knew his way around the news world.

        Importantly, he specifically chose the term “journalism” here, not TV news or cable news or tabloid journalism or anything else. (And since he later was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the U. of Geneva, I think it’s safe to say that he chose words carefully.) So he is saying that this flattening of perspective is inherent in the approach taken by ALL contemporary journalism, it’s not a matter of one news outlet doing a better job than another. And, more broadly, that this journalistic frameworking of events shapes how we perceive human affairs and the world.

        So, again, this thing you think is so fundamentally new, simply isn’t. The internet has merely turbocharged a frame of reference that was already operative.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, I guess I’m pretty stupid. Happy? I guess all that effort I put into doing it right was completely pointless, huh?

          I do like the Economist, which calls itself a “newspaper” although no one in this country would. There is no front page in the sense I’ve been talking about here, where you have a number of stories played according to their value. You have to turn page by page. But it’s worth it to a thoughtful reader. You’ve gotta applaud a publication that BEGINS with the leaders (editorials)…

          I miss it from the days when the newspaper paid for my copy. Now, I can’t subscribe to everything I would like to read. I’ve got four or five newspaper subscriptions now, and a couple of magazines. That’s more than I can afford, and more than I have time for…

      2. bud

        Me thinks you are a bit overly defensive here. Newspapers used to have stories about rich girl cotillions as if that was newsworthy.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Of course they did. In those days, those were considered important local community events back then. Way before my time. During my time in the trade, “coming out” came to mean something else.

          Of course, I say that, but it seems like I’ve seen full-page ads with pictures of debs just recently. The difference of course, is that those are ads. What that DOES tell you is that small segments of the community still consider those to be important events, to the point that they’re willing to pay for the ads.

          But you’re right — editors in the 30s and 40s didn’t climb into a time machine to check and see what bud would think about cotillions in 2023. Or what I would think, for that matter… 🙂

          1. Bill

            ‘While cotillions are more focused on teaching young people how to be respectful members of society, debutante balls mark the official joining of society once those children age into young adults.’

  4. Ken

    David Books noted, correctly I think, that Biden’s address was somewhat Trumpy-ish, America-Firsty-like, showing the impact that Trump has had in shifting the frame of American politics and political rhetoric.


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