Our guest writer today is Andrew Orlebeke (’10). Hi! My name is Andrew Orlebeke. I’m a 2010 graduate who majored and Spanish. I currently live in Washington, D.C. and am interning on Capitol Hill, but I spent the last two years teaching English abroad in Spain and South Korea. I’m a huge sports fan, an ardent traveler, and a frequent Qdoba patron, and I’m excited to write more for my fellow Knights!
I have always been an eager consumer of news. I’m probably among the few millenials who prefers a print newspaper to an electronic one, but I’m not picky; in the absence of the former I’ll gladly delve into the latter. My living and working situation has exacerbated this tendency—it is difficult to live in Washington, D.C. and work in a senator’s office without keeping up-to-date on current events. But despite, or perhaps because of, this need to maintain a certain news savoir faire, I have lately found myself questioning its value.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating for ignorance. It is important to know what’s going on in world and I have little tolerance for removing oneself from society. But addictively reading news presents dangers with which I have recently been coming to grips.
I am far from the only one. Many news critics, unsurprisingly, are from academia, among them Gabrielle Spiegel, a noted historian and history professor at Johns Hopkins University. To Spiegel, our relatively short lives and limited time on earth render daily news “ephemeral, repetitive and inconsequential.” “I teach my children that there are only two things they need to get by in life,” she says in an interview with NPR. “The first is a really rich fantasy life, so you can imagine what could be, and the second is a sense of humor, so you can deal with what is.” This, says Spiegel, is why she prefers novels and stories to the banality of the news cycle.
Others have different concerns. Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly, eschewed his career in journalism to write novels because he felt that working in the media constrained his ability to write about non-newsworthy things, like the losers in sports, which were more interesting to him. A student of the Dalai Lama posits that the news barrage creates “a sense of despair which (she) thinks is unrealistic,” thereby immobilizing us from trying to contribute.
But it is John Sommerville, a history professor at the University of Florida, whose warnings strike the truest for me. Sommerville’s quarrel is not with the news but with its ubiquity. Immersing yourself in the never-ending deluge of new stories, old stories packaged as new stories, and non-stories made into stories carries the same risk as watching one play of a football game or listening to one measure of a concerto; it is very easy to lose perspective, and perspective is everything.
Imagine that you tuned in to the Lions game this past weekend for just one play—Dez Bryant’s 50-yard touchdown catch. It was a disastrous play for Detroit and a triumph for the Cowboys; still in the game and with good coverage on Dallas’ feature player, the Lions somehow let a throw sneak through two defenders’ arms to Bryant, who corralled it and ran the remaining 30 yards to the end zone. It was the worst case scenario for Detroit.
But as those who watched the game know, that play was far from the whole story. The Lions dominated play from start to finish, running up 623 total yards, and managed to overcome four turnovers to win a thriller and assume first place in the NFC North.
(Aside: Calvin Johnson is so ridiculous. That catch when he jumped over two guys to pull in a 54-yard pass—outrageous. I’ve never seen anyone like him.)
Of course, most people don’t watch just one play. Because events happen so quickly in sports—usually the difference is measured in seconds—it’s relatively easy to see how the plays affect each other and how one flows into the next. But news is different; events happen sufficiently discreetly from one another that the connections are not always readily apparent. In Sommerville’s words, if “…dumbness is the inability to make logical and historical connections, then you can see how taking in everything on a daily basis is going to hurt our ability to make the connections.”
There are undeniable caveats to what Sommerville et al. have to say, most notably that most of the critics in question reside firmly within an ivory tower, looking out at the world from on high. University academics, by and large, is less concerned with day-to-day goings-on than business, medicine, public service, or many other professions. Furthermore, as citizens of a democracy, it would be both irresponsible and unreasonable to avoid the news entirely; we owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to make informed decisions come Election Day.
These issues notwithstanding, the skeptics raise salient points. Despair-induced paralysis is a real problem and a primary cause of societal apathy, and while it would be unfair to blame news-blasting, I think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t help. A possible solution to the paralysis and loss of perspective, Sommerville suggests, is to look for analysis from weekly, monthly and quarterly publications, which can help preserve the context.
News abstinence isn’t for everybody. It may even be a bad idea; I make no claims of authority on the matter. But it’s certainly a different idea, and one that I have been considering. I have begun trying to reduce my daily news consumption and I do my best to avoid punditry and talking heads. The jury is still out on whether it has made a difference, but in a world increasingly defined by the instant, taking a step back may be just what we need.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.