Monday , 11 December 2017

Quick! Turn Off the News!

By Rick Green

A quick introduction. Or warning. Or explanation. Or caveat. I wrote this blog some time ago, and it was scheduled to be posted long before the terrible events in Nice, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Turkey, Baghdad, Paris, and… the list goes on. I am not trying diminish, overlook, or ignore the tragedies that are going on in the world and turning every day’s front page into another, “Oh my God! Did this really happen?!” My wife Ava suggested we reschedule this, and perhaps we should have. But it’s here now. If you read it, I hope you do so in the greater context, and the experience I have had of being so affected by bad news that I’m almost incapacitated. Many of us who have ADHD struggle with managing emotions. We are told that we are ‘too sensitive.’ And these days it seems that the news is especially challenging to those of use who feel things deeply. So, again, this is not about any particular news story. It’s about you making sure that you are okay. On the other hand, if a news story does affect you, inspiring you to take action, to make a difference, to donate, volunteer, rally, or offer support, then that’s wonderful. I know from experience that is the opposite of feeling helpless.


Watching TV AlarmedNow and then, when I’m driving, I turn on the news station, to get the traffic report. One station does traffic updates ‘every ten minutes on the ‘1’s and the other does them ‘on the ‘9’s… as in 09, 19, 29, 39, 49, and 59 minutes into each hour.

I often miss the traffic because I turn on the radio at the last possible moment. Why? Because I no longer listen to the news. Why? Because it upsets me.

Not the news itself. I’ve lived through the 60’s and 70’s. Not to mention the 80’s, and 90’s.

Every month was another disaster. Killer bees! Swine flu! Hurricane Hugo! Vietnam! The Ayatollah! Shuttles exploding! Oil spills! Acid Rain! The Beatles split up! Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!

Stuff happens. Now and then something actually affects me or my loved ones directly. But mostly, not to be callous, but it’s just more bad news.

Do I Sound Cold? Unfeeling? Harsh?

Actually, yes, it kind of sounds like I’m a heartless monster… Even to me.

Let me explain.

Today, 1/3 of the world lives in poverty. Every day 10,000 children die of preventable diseases. (The good news is that a few decades ago it was three times that number. No one talks about it, but we’re making huge progress on so many thing. Why does no one talk about it? Because we’re wired for fear, for danger, for bad news.)

Bad stuff is always happening. It used to be worse. Not in the 60’s or 70’s. I’m talking 50,000 years ago.

The Primitive Brain

CavemenOur brains developed so that our first reaction to anything new and unexpected triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response. How did that happen? Simple. The early humans who didn’t immediately see everything as a threat didn’t live as long. Instead of becoming parents, they became a tasty snack for some hyenas.

Seeing danger everywhere, sensing the worst, being always suspicious and on guard is awesome if you were around when lions, tigers, and alligators were a constant threat, food was scarce, and the entire medical system was a shaman who had five kinds of herbs to rub on you sabre-tooth bite marks.

Today, we live longer, safer, happier, lives than at any time in human history. Especially those of us lucky enough to be born into the top 1/3 of humanity who have access to water, food, shelter, education, and Playstation 4.

We Live in the Best of All Worlds

But we don’t feel like it, do we?

The problem is, our brains. When everything is fine, our little brains can’t stop worrying. When there’s nothing big to worry about, we start to worry about small things. And soon, smaller and smaller things. No one experiencing a drought in Somalia says, “I’m so totally upset because my mother-in-law said my kitchen is always messy.”

When there’s nothing to worry about, we become neurotic.

And the news fills us with more and more to worry about. Things that can’t possibly affect us.

Filling Our Heads With Worry

I don’t avoid listening to the news because I’m irresponsible or I don’t care. In fact, I’m about as up on world issues as anyone I know.

It’s not the news I can’t handle.

It’s how it’s delivered. I can’t handle the drama.

Stay Tuned for the Nightly Lies, Weather & Sports

Here’s a fun challenge. Record five minutes of Fox News, write it out, and then do a fact check and cross out anything that isn’t true. According to one study, that’s most of it.

But that’s a separate issue. Accuracy, getting the facts right, reporting the truth… doesn’t happen in the USA since the laws were changed in ____

That’s not why I switched off the TV and radio. There are still channels out there that report the facts and get it right.

What I can’t listen to, or, okay, consciously choose to avoid, is the melodrama. The un-provable, florid prose, vague generalizations, and inherent assumptions.

“Voters Are Angry…”

“People are scared…”

“The whole city is in mourning…”

“The country is struggling…”

When does a whole city go into mourning? Isn’t it possible that a few people just felt a bit sad. And some folks didn’t hear about it at all?

“Other countries don’t respect us…”

Really? Prove it. Name another country that doesn’t respect us? Is the whole country? Or one politician who said something? Did every citizen get to approve the statement before the head of their country said something disrespectful? And what makes a statement disrespectful?

“Voters are angry…”

All of them? Even the ones who don’t vote  and don’t follow politics?

Maybe the voters you show are angry. And maybe of the 30 commuters your reporter approached at the bus terminal, three of them were angry. And those are the three you showed on the air…

“Right now, the country is struggling…”

Define country? The land itself? The soil and rock and trees are struggling? Or the people? The government? Who are you talking about? And what kind of struggle? No jobs? No money? Erectile dysfunction?,

A Terrible, Horrible, Shocking, Brutal… Whatever

Then there are the adjective. “The victim was brutally stabbed nine times.” Thanks for making that clear. I assumed he’d been elegantly stabbed, as mercifully as possible given the circumstances.

“It’s a historic moment.”

Okay, thanks for letting me know. The fact that he is the first black president in American history, or even any Western or European country, didn’t really hit me until I realized it was historic.

I’m impatient. I want the facts. Tell me what has happened. Give me information. Let me decide if it’s tragic, horrible, incredible, historic, or ‘moving.’

Let’s Go Live! Breaking News!

Collage of DisasterThe worst is when there’s a natural disaster. Then it’s live. And suddenly the young, good-looking, news anchors look totally out of their depth. Gravitas? Knowledge? Insight?

Footage of the damage from an earthquake. But in case you’re one of those people who thinks every building in Peru is normally flattened, broken into pieces, and on fire, the announcers will clarify it: “And we can see the damage from the earthquake is bad… Several homes are flattened, collapsed… A car, trapped under concrete… No way of knowing if someone is in there… It’s a tragic situation… Dramatic images indeed… People are suffering…”

“The tornado has left a trail of damage and destruction.” Unlike those tornadoes that sweep through a town and tidy up everyone’s messy houses and cluttered yards.

“The devastation is terrible, just terrible…”

Yes, I guessed that from the shot of an entire neighborhood reduced to kindling.

My mother told me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

For news anchors it should be, “If you can’t add any facts or information, don’t say anything at all.”


I know this may sound petty, but it adds up.

When I listened to the news every day the world was dangerous, scary, uncertain, hostile, and on the verge of disaster. I was worried. I’d lie awake, stewing. I felt stressed. On the defensive.

When I switched it off for a few months, and just got on with life, shopping, working, seeing friends, walking around, doing things with my wife and the kids… Life was just fine. I smiled at people in the hardware store. They smiled back. The sun shone.

Terrorists? Maybe somewhere, but not here.

Crime is rising? Not that I noticed.

Other nations are laughing at us? If so, it wasn’t loud enough for me to hear.

Destruction and devastation? Maybe somewhere, but not here. And if, on the off chance it does come here, we’ll deal with it. People always do.

The Challenge

Remote Turning Off TVHere’s my challenge to you: turn off the news for one month.

I’m not asking you to become irresponsible. Or stop caring about the world. Or being involved in your community.

I’m asking you to start poisoning your brain with nothing but negativity and fear over things you can do nothing about. If there’s an earthquake in Peru, make a donation and get on with your life. Call a friend. Start a new hobby. Develop a new skill. Go to the gym.

And let me know what happens.

Voters are angry? Maybe some are, but when I talk to my friends and family, they seem happy. Until someone starts talking about politics. Or something they heard on the news.

I’m driving my son and a carload of his stuff back to university, so we’re checking traffic on the ‘all news’ radio station. For those of you too young to remember the Golden Age of radio with its weepy melodramas and histrionic soap operas I recommend you listen to the ‘all news’ station. It’s damn close.

At the top of the hour, the Mr News Man announces the top story, “The municipality of Durham is reeling with despair over the fate of a two year old boy…” (The italics are mine. He spoke with an italic free voice.)

The Municipality of Durham is reeling with despair?

Really? Can a municipality have feelings? Isn’t a municipality just a large area of land? A government jurisdiction? A bunch of lines on a map and signs at the side of the road saying something like, “Welcome to Durham, Home of The Giant Walnut!”?

Can’t wait to hear what the whole province is feeling, can you? “Ontario is struggling with frustration over the vast amount of granite it has in the bedrock of the Canadian Shield…”

Oh, right! Stupid me! Mr. Radio News Man obviously meant the people of Durham are all ‘reeling with despair.’

Really? All 600,000 of them? How did they all hear about it so quickly? Maybe in that municipality they all have “Durham Twitter…”

What’s actually more amazing is that tall 600,000 of those, uh, er, Durhamianers, are reeling with despair. How do they coordinate these things? I mean, in most municipalities when 600,000 different people hear something, they have a bit of a range of reactions to any kind of news.

You can see for yourself with this little experiment–tell different people that they have won a free ride in a hot air balloon and you’ll see a range of reactions from delight to terror. Some may even reel in despair. So getting everyone to agree on how they feel about political stuff, or a new transit system or even a terrible crime like this…

Yes, I know, I’m nitpicking.

But the fate of the world hinges on small things, accumulating. (Oh, now we’re getting melodrama from me! You say, “Rick, prove the fate of the world depends on small things. And define ‘fate of the world’. And by World, do you mean this big ball of municipalities?” And I say, “Shutup, it’s my blog! And how did you get in my head?”)

Where was I?… In my head.

Oh, right, so obviously Mr. News Man meant that the people in Durham are reeling in despair. Which he obviously cannot prove, substantiate or even accurately measure. How much in despair do you have to be to be ‘reeling’ as opposed to simply ‘feeling despair.’

Or worse, ‘shattered with despair.’

But after all, you may argue, “When you hear what happened to the boy, who wouldn’t be reeling in despair?”

Despair leaves people broken, sad, paralyzed with grief, unable to take action, broken…

Is that how everyone reacted?

Could it be possible that some people, a few even, were outraged and inspired to do something about the treatment of children? Could some others Durham folks actually be feeling grateful that they never went through that as a child. Or feeling determined, determined and committed to make sure their kids never endure the fate of the child in the news story? Could some people even be appreciating life anew, and actually be inspired to call their parents and acknowledge them for the safe childhood they provided…

Yeah, I know, I’m turning this into a Frank Capra feel good moment, but you get my point. I hope you do. Cause I’m not sure what it was…

Okay, right: One point to this is obvious: the media skew everything. The Editorial page is the only page that admits it, but everything is slanted, filtered, and awash in ‘story’ and ’emotion’.

Newspapers get the facts wrong all the time, leave out huge gaps, and yet God forbid if anyone actually ‘doctors a photograph.’

While almost every journalist I know aspires to spread the truth and do good, the big media outlets, that is to say the municipalities of the media world rather than the individuals are more and more inclined to be doing what the advertisers do. Pitching feelings.

Especially these days when the media outlets are all part of conglomerates. We all know that the mere selection of news is totally skewed. (Try getting an article on your amazing ADHD documentary that’s airing on Global from any media outlet not owned by the people who own Global!)

So everything in your newspaper is slanted, except maybe the sports scores and stock market prices. But hey, sports and the stock market already run entirely on emotion, they need some way to connect to something measurable and real.

The other point I think I’m trying to make is that it seems to me, the media interpret everything ahead of time. Even our reactions. Nothing is left for us to decide. You don’t just get the facts, you are told what it means, what you should feel about it and why you should or shouldn’t worry further.

So when you hear a news report you don’t have to stop and figure out how you feel, you are already told by the news report…you should be “reeling with despair”. After all, the whole 600,000 Township of Durham is, it wouldn’t be normal to feel otherwise.

Other possibilities? Eliminated ahead of time.

Well, you might ask, (And I will ask in case you don’t) what other reaction could there be to the tragic fate of this boy?…

How about the possibility of being outraged and taking action to prevent it happening again, or being grateful and calling someone, or feeling determined and making a difference… That never occurs to you. Those options are already off the table. Gone. So if you wonder why access to all this news and more and more information just leaves you feeling less and less powerful, and more and more passive,,,consider the fact that to the big media you are a consumer. And if the news report about the child in Durham who suffered a terrible fate actually shook you into action, and you went off and started working with the Children’s Aid Society, or Big Brothers, or whatever, even for one evening a month, then you wouldn’t be sitting at home watching TV, consuming the news and the ads that go with them and the products that the ads are trying to sell you.

Okay, I’m stopping now. I’m starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist.

I’ll write more about this next time.





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