A reply from a journalist

Last week I wrote a post on Medium, "Why You Should Only Read Long Articles and Books (and why you don’t)." 

In it I highly recommended a 1991 article in First Things called, "Why The News Makes Us Dumb." The author, John Sommerville, argues that the "news" is a largely a waste of time that makes us over-focus on things that happened recently (the last 24 hours), few of which are actually important. It distracts us from that which is lasting and truly important.

I still think that is a terrific read.

But my friend Joshua Boak, a pulitizer-nominated journalist, begged to differ. He wrote me a thoughtful email defending the news. It was good, I thought I'd post it here:


"The recommended essay about the news making people "dumb" is simply wrong.

People have demonstrated their ignorance before the birth of the broadsheet and will continue to do so after its death. There are many fair and important critiques of the news. This 1991 essay by C. John Sommerville fails to rise to that level. His analysis seems to be a classic case of shooting the messenger before fully reviewing the contents of the message.

As a professional newsman, let me explain. News is supposed to be fleeting. For much of the 20th Century, today's front page was tomorrow's fish wrap. That linkage is important. The news is similar to a meal both as a routine and source of nourishment. Not every dinner requires a Michelin-starred restaurant. Nor does every bit of reading need to be Plato's "The Republic."

The news connects us to our immediate world. It is remarkably practical. A radio report about a traffic jam can save a commuter time on the way home to see her children. An analysis of a football game can pry open friendships among the shyest of co-workers. None of these stories are about the narrow concept of "change" that Sommerville claims is the driving definition of daily news. But these stories provide value to their audiences.

And while news is fleeting, it has umistakably served as the first draft of history. The stories that last do capture changes in our society and hold our public figures accountable. The seemingly disposable story of the day can grow indispensable over time. There would be no definitive text of the Gettysburg Address without an Associated Press scribbler, who most notably documented that speech's reference to the divine. (http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/230171/lincoln-relied-on-ap-report-of-gettsyburg-address/). The Civil Rights movement relied on media coverage to show the brutal ugliness of segregation and racism to the world.

Less than a month after this particular essay was published, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed the nine-part series "America: What Went Wrong?" It emerged from two years of reporting on the lasting consequences of seemingly arcane tax reform. It prompted mass reprints to satiate the demand from readers (http://ajrarchive.org/Article.asp?id=1441).

If Sommerville shows anything, it is merely that his eye prefers to wander to the cheap headlines that confirm his suspicions and biases. In claiming to care about what matters, he ignores the daily supply from newspapers and magazines of evidence to the contrary."