The Instant News… and Its Implications

Whether it’s Headline News, Bloomberg News, Fox News, and AOL… everywhere there’s instant news… and where there’s not instant news, there are instant comment shows, or failing that, instant action dramas. But the instant news exemplifies the trend… and the problems. The other day, in a moment of weakness, I happened to be actually using the satellite TV and came across a well-known sports commentator who was pitching an instant sports news network or program with words to the effect that this instant sports news access venue [whatever it was] was a must to the young and hip, and that only those over fifty waited for the regular news to learn what was happening.

My first thought, as quickly as I turned off the system and regretted the impulse that had led me to even consider that there might be anything interesting being broadcast, particularly on a Saturday, was to wonder why anyone HAD to know the sports “news” that quickly. Then, there was the secondary thought about how much of the news, these days, is really so vital that one can’t wait for the next day’s newspaper. But then, our society is all about, as one commercial called to my attention by my wife stated, how “I want it all, and I want it now.” So I suppose instant news of all sorts is just another aspect of that attitude.

Still… for all the growth of and popularity of all these forms of instant news, it seems to me that either very few people realize the implications behind these demand for instant information or those that do feel that protesting what seems like a popular tsunami of support is futile.

So… here are the implications as I see them. First, as we already know, all these varieties of media “news” have become entertainment, not a source of real information, and whatever information is contained tends to be so condensed, slanted, or incomplete as to be either inaccurate or misleading. There’s a headline about how a substance increases cancer risks by sixty percent, but nowhere does the story point out that the risk for most people for that kind of cancer is something like 1/20th of one percent. Hazardous waste sites and nuclear power plants are touted as great health risks, when guns, falls, substance abuse, and automobile accidents are all literally hundreds of thousands of times more dangerous.

Second, because the media focuses on sensationalism in one form or another, meaningful news that impacts most Americans is ignored until it becomes a sensational disaster. The problems with adjustable rate mortgages and securities derivatives weren’t exactly a great secret. They just weren’t worth exploring as news until they created hundreds of billions of dollars in losses and started costing tens of thousands of Americans their homes.

Third, it perpetuates caricaturing as a media art-form, creating images of individuals in the news that may well be at variance with who they are or what they have done… or failed to do. This has always been a mass media problem, and some of the most notable examples are the way in which Hitler used the media in Germany, the American media’s creation of an image of JFK that bore little resemblance to the actual man and his considerable lack of achievement as president or the media’s depiction of Gerald Ford as a clumsy physical bumbler when Ford was in fact perhaps one of the most graceful and athletic presidents. In our present electronic age, especially, because of the mass media time-limits and the capabilities of technology, anyone presented in this format becomes an instant caricature.

Fourth, the emphasis on the current, new, and instant creates a pressure to act and react on inadequate information, and, as the Founding Fathers knew [which was why they structured our government to preclude hasty action and reaction], hasty actions almost always result in bad decisions and less than desirable repercussions. Yet today, the entire media culture presses people to decide “now.” Check your credit card balance instantly so that you can decide how much you can charge for that new wide-screen television. Vote your preferences online for the candidates — political or American idol, it makes no difference. It’s only entertainment.

Finally, as a result of the above, the entire idea of “news” as having a special or intrinsic value is devalued, and it becomes harder and harder for the average person to find the information that they need and should have without digging deeper and harder than ever before — exactly at a time when those who should learn more don’t want to and those who would like to know more have less and less time to explore it.

If these pressures remained in the electronic media, that would be bad enough, but they’re not. They’re also now exerting a considerable impact on the publishing industry. I can recall, years ago, reading the introductory chapters of James Michener’s books. Frankly, I really didn’t care much for the novels, but I found the popularized history and background fascinating, and that led to my reading more and more non-fiction in those areas.

One of the fastest-growing print entertainment areas is the anime/manga subgenre or cross-genre. I don’t have a problem with anime/manga per se, but I have great problems when I go into a bookstore and see carrels of books being replaced by what amounts to graphic novels, because, regardless of what the anime aficionados may claim, when real books are being replaced by grown-up comic books, the intellectual capacity of the culture isn’t headed in the right direction. It’s just another form of the over-visualized and over-simplified.

In the end, thinking requires a depth of information and time to consider. Instant news, instant entertainment, and instant reaction are all being pushed by the media in order to get people to instant-buy, but this rush to instant-everything denies any real depth of information and denigrates thoughtful consideration of facts and issues. And, if the trends continue, they’ll also water down, if not destroy, the thoughtful side of the print fiction market.

And the thought of losing future readers to instant sports or celebrity news tends to irritate me… and probably more other writers than would care to admit it.