Why I don't read modern journalism
Changing our media diet changes our perception of the world.
I wrote this essay almost three years ago and published it just two months into writing this newsletter. At the time, I wanted to read better things but it has since become the reason I write better things, and I think that’s worth revisiting now.
I had a dream. I was living on some island at the far edge of the world, where the sky chased itself through a mirage of pink clouds, and the water hallucinated with dappled drops of purple sunset. It was some strange cerulean paradise, only my teeth hurt, so I went to the dentist.
She lived in a small pagoda on the edge of a lily pond and her home was lined with tatami mats, a small pot of tea steaming the scent of jasmine into the air. She wore a simple kimono, knelt on the floor and cupped her hands in her lap, gesturing to me to join her.
I lay down beside her and placed my head in her lap. She stroked my hair and smoothed it onto my neck and down my shoulders. As a dentist, she whispered, she realized long ago that the teeth were only a reflection of the mind, and that she could do nothing for the teeth if she did not first calm the mind.
My jaw relaxed in her care, my teeth released their grip—the many things they’d been holding onto lost as the pain slowly melted away.
I fell asleep in her arms.
The gnashing of teeth
I read an article sometime later that suggested dentists were noticing more cracked teeth during the pandemic. The result of stress held in the jaw, they said. I told this to my sister and she said her dentist recommended a nightguard to protect her teeth while she slept, but that he did so with a hint of condemnation. “What do you have to be stressed by at your age?” he wondered.
The stress is a thing, and it has proliferated these last several years, but a nightguard will do nothing to stop it. The teeth grinding continues unbidden, a sign of our consciousness collecting detritus throughout the day, with nothing to protect us from them save a piece of plastic held between our teeth when we sleep.
But the sources of our stress are external. They come from the media, which has, over the course of the last several years, spiraled into something more alarmist than usual—pouring into us every fear that could be unleashed from Pandora’s box and whispering new furies into our ears by the minute. And we dwell on them as if trapped in the tangled limbs of Dante’s inferno.
I used to adore The New York Times. It was my favorite paper. I would get the print edition and read every page with a pot of green tea and a box of almond croissants on Sundays. I adored articles about long-lost princes living in the jungles of India and Indigenous Peruvian musicians that rap in their native language. I still admire their editorial journalism, but their news has skewed increasingly dramatic over the years—and that has been done intentionally. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times saw a 66 percent increase in profits by spiraling into every word (either spoken or tweeted) of President Trump. As a result of their so-called “Trump bump” they kept doing it, and nearly every media outlet followed.
With the liberal media so consumed by their fury, the conservative media could do nothing but oppose it. The dueling forces of chaos clashing against one another like a war between winter and summer—and we are the collateral damage, watching every blow from down below, on the edge of our seats as to whether we should put on a dress or a snowsuit before stepping foot outside.
We’ve been doing this for a while. We focus on the worst parts of the world and then we reward it. Over the past 10 years, our Pulitzer Prize-winning books (meant to “honor excellence in journalism”) covered racial injustice (4 books), poverty (2), cancer/illness (2), nationalism (1), fracking (1), terrorism (1), and mass extinction (1). We have to go back 11 years to find a prize-winning book that focused on human progress rather than regress: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.
This is the way the media works. We love the drama and we reward it. But we bear the consequences of it in our bones. In the gnashing of our teeth.
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The speaking of evil
There was a time during the pandemic when I felt the effects of the media. Our hospitals became full and our phones were lighting up with alerts from the governor. Our stores were being boarded up out of apparent fear of civil unrest. But with each fear-based step, I was reminded of a picture I saw in the news about the 5.7 earthquake that hit Salt Lake City earlier in the year. It depicted a building collapsed to the ground, a pile of rubble strewn across the street. The ground tremored, it’s true. The water fell from my bathtub and the chandelier swung from my ceiling like a pendulum. But there was only one building in the city that toppled and it was the one they photographed for the news.
We were shaken, but fine. Not a single dish fell from our shelves, nor did the mirror leaning against my wall stumble. And yet, if you lived outside of Salt Lake City and saw that picture in the news you would assume the worst—that our houses were collapsed and our livelihoods ruined—many of our friends and family members did. They called us throughout the day anxious for our welfare. That is when I realized one fundamental truth: even if the world is 99 percent good, the news will report on the one percent that is not—it sells better that way. And, as an unfortunate consequence of that fact, we will dwell on that one percent as if the world is falling away from beneath our feet. And it will seep into our sanity.
Headline by headline, the media erodes our wellbeing, perforating our thoughts with fear. Forcing us to fear for our children’s life when they go to school, to wonder whether we will reach a civil war. On the news we hear, “a local man died of a heart attack at the age of 35,” and that thought permeates into our being, reverberating around our skulls like a phantom. They were the same age as us, we think as we try to fall asleep, haunted by some new idea just because we happened to hear it.
But this is not a truth problem, it is a language problem. And the proliferation of that language problem. In his book Enlightenment Now,frames the truth in two ways, first using positive words then using negative words. Here are a few of them:
Since the 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71. // In impoverished regions, life expectancy is still less than 60.
Since the 18th century, the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent to 10 percent. // 700 million people still live in extreme poverty.
The world is 100x wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world’s countries. // Lower middle classes have seen their incomes rise by less than 10 percent in two decades.
Since the 18th century, the percentage of people living in democratic countries increased from 1 percent to 66 percent. // One-third of humans are still oppressed in autocratic states.
Since the 18th century, women went from being able to vote in only one country to being able to vote in every country where men can vote save one. // A fifth of the American population believes women should return to traditional roles.
Strange how the words we use define how we feel. Both statements are true, and yet the positive ones fill us with the sense that we have made enormous human progress and the negative words fill us with the sense that we’re on the brink of collapse. And this is why the words we use are important. This is why we can feel comforted and empowered by a positive, uplifting speech from a president, or fall into anxiety and depression by a negative or angrily delivered one.
As Barack Obama said in a keynote speech about human progress (and has repeated many times elsewhere): “If you had to choose one moment in history in which to be born, and you didn't know in advance whether you were going to be male or female, which country you were going to be from, what your status was, you'd choose right now.”
The percentage of the world that is good is ever increasing. And the percentage of the world that is bad is ever decreasing. As Enlightenment Now reminds us, over the course of the last century, “people are getting healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated… [We’ve] emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, [and] saved the ozone layer.” On the whole, we are living longer, better, safer, more equal lives. We work less than ever before, spend more time with our families, travel more than we were ever able to, and experience more rights and personal freedoms than any generation before us.
We should still protect against the small percentage that is bad. We should work to feed the world, to eradicate poverty and hunger, to increase opportunities for every person. We should protect the environment. We should make the world better for the next generation. We should make that small percentage of the world that is bad even smaller. But we should also remember that the world is getting better. That we are already living in the best version of it that has ever existed. That there is so much light in the world already. And that drawing ourselves down into the mire will do nothing to abate the darkness that still exists.
The right speech
There’s a thread of thought that traces its way through Plato’s Republic, into the ideologies of Confucianism, carries on through Renaissancian ideals of humanism, and comes out through modern psychology. It was known by the Greeks as eudaimonia, by the Buddhists as right speech, and by the American Psychological Association as positive psychology. The idea is simple: that the words we use create our reality.
We saw this play out during the pandemic. Though we were dealing with a shared experience, some of my friends turned it into an opportunity, while many others fell into despondency. Around those others, I felt as though I weren’t allowed to be happy. Like I had to think about those years as a communal depression even though that wasn’t my experience of it at all—it was one of the best years of my life. I don’t negate the suffering—nor were we exempt from it. My husband had to get emergency surgery twice during that time, we both got COVID and had to quarantine for a month. But suffering exists and always will, and we are allowed to be happy in the face of it.
If we fill our lives with negative words we will live in a negative reality, and if we fill our lives with positive words we will live in a positive reality. Personally, I wanted to unclench my teeth. I wanted to focus on the utopia we are building, rather than become mired by the dystopia. That’s why at some point during the pandemic I decided to step away from the “wrong speech.” I canceled my subscription to The New York Times, I unsubscribed from The Atlantic and The Economist. Instead, I filled my life with the “right speech.”
I subscribed to Delayed Gratification, a quarterly print magazine that reports on the world news three months after it happened. I subscribed to Future Crunch, a newsletter that shares a weekly dose of everything that went right in the world, and all the human progress we have made. I filled my nightstand with my utopian reading list and books byand and . I followed newsletters that didn’t report on the problems, but thought through the solutions—like the ones by , , and .
Two years later, I still read Substack and Kindle instead of everything else. To this day, I am not aware of what is going on in the news cycle right this moment until I read about it from a distance in Delayed Gratification. I know it seems strange to be apart from the news cycle in this way, but it seems even stranger to be attached to it—as though by reading about the hour-by-hour worries of the world we are somehow helping it.
We are not.
We are only becoming stressed by it, we are only becoming angered by it — and that does nothing to help a world that feels increasingly stressful and increasingly angry. Not when what we really need is the right speech, eudaimonia, positive psychology. When what we need is to see the beauty, and surround ourselves with it. When what we need is to walk across the waters and hire a dentist who will not give us a nightguard but will help us unclench our teeth.
I don’t want to dwell in the darkness of the trees, I want to rise above it and see the forest. To see the beautiful world we’ve been creating unfolding before us, and the one that will only get better from here. It exists, we just can’t see it through the trees—our lives darkened by the media forests we dwell in. But the darkness is an illusion, and there is light up above. “The peace researcher Johan Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes,” Pinker says.
Personally, I want to see that progress rather than dwell in the regress—that’s the kind of life I’m after. And for me, that means hitting unsubscribe on anything that reports on the negative and hitting subscribe on those who are building the positive. I hope you’ll join me.
Comments are open to all subscribers on this one. I’d love to know your favorite newsletters and publications—please share links!
Thank you for reading,
PS, next week I’ll be sharing my first quarterly report, then we’ll be deep diving into various government structures.
The most common criticism of my work is not disagreement with my ideas about how we can create a better future, but that those ideas are even possible. But I would argue a better future is actually inevitable! Here are a few books full of statistics that empirically prove that the world is getting better and that a better future is more likely than a worse one. Highly recommended reading:
Pinker’s book provides endless statistics proving that our media bias is incorrect, that the world is getting better by nearly every possible metric, and he painstakingly goes through every single one of those metrics. I highly recommend this book!
But he has the same gripes that I do about the media, and the way we reward our writers and intellectuals for their critiques. “Intellectuals hate progress,” Pinker says in a chapter called “progressophobia.”
Prophets of doom are the all stars of the liberal arts curriculum…
He points to all of the philosophers who became famous for their critiques of the world, even as he points to hundreds of charts proving them wrong, that the world has been getting better.
The nature of the news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug…called the Availability heuristic: people estimate that the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind…
Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about 50 Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television…
Heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling… and they become fatalistic, saying things like “why should I vote? It’s not going to help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just going to be another kid who’s starving next week.”
Related: “Why Pessimism Sounds Smart” by
”What We Owe The Future by William MacAskill
MacAskill thinks we are more likely to achieve utopia than we are to achieve dystopia (though he prefers the terms eutopia and anti-eutopia) because people “produce good things just because things are good, but people rarely produce bad things just because they are bad.”
Consider the best possible future: civilization is full of beings with long, blissful, and flourishing lives, full of artistic and scientific accomplishment, expanded across the cosmos.
We can get there in two ways, he says: with moral convergence, where we all agree what is good and work toward achieving it, or without moral convergence, where we each have our own independent versions of what is good, and the resulting society is a compromise that’s still headed in a good direction.
But to get to dystopia is much harder to fathom.
Try to consider the worst possible civilization… such a future would have to consist of an enormous number of people, spread out across the cosmos, living lives ful of intense misery. Can we come up with explanations of how such an outocme could come about? It’s much harder to do… Eutopia is much more likely than anti-eutopia.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman