Too Much News

Posted on March 12, 2016


Like all of us, I cannot escape the ongoing presidential race. I promised myself I would not write about it since every political pundit in the country, from those writing for the millions to those of us writing, presumably, for just the thousands, has something to say. And then they say it again, giving it a slightly different twist each time to keep you entertained by their cleverness, or to make you angry, irritated, or frustrated by what insults have been filling the air in the past twenty-four hours, as if we simply needed more.

So it was with some relief that I happened upon “Tuchman’s Law” a few days ago while doing some research on societies that have suffered terrible traumas and loss. As Barbara Tuchman, an immensely talented historian of a generation ago, phrased it, “The fact of [something] being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”

Tuchman wrote this in the introduction to her book on the effects of the Black Plague in the Europe of the fourteenth century. I remember reading A Distant Mirror (1978) a few years ago.

Let’s examine this a bit in the light of her humorous approach to a subject, the Black Plague, definitely not humorous. But she was writing of her own time, from the 1940s through the 1980s. Since all news is generally bad news—newspapers don’t sell good news—she observed:

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law…” quoted above.

Or, paraphrased, the more we hear about bad news, the worse and nearer it seems to get. We can substitute our own litany of horrors, from among the worst, like the decapitation of Christians by ISIS terrorists, to the banal, like the failure of our schools to educate, from moral depravity to offended sensibilities, from racism to the political correct mavens who would have us believe all they believe as true and right.

It is sometimes overwhelming, and as Tuchman observed, one finally expects to be confronted, right there in your living room, with the catastrophes and disasters plaguing the world. And I don’t just mean Tuchman’s list, although it is pretty impressive, “strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists.” We can add our own, from terrorists to child molesting priests, and, in a presidential race which has raised the level of vulgarity, lies, and depraved vanity to new levels of tolerance—or what we regularly tolerate now in our daily lives—the sky is the limit, or, better, the sewers of our lives seemingly have no boundaries, and we swim in the filth without a second thought as to old fashioned values of civility.

We hear and see so much of the “news,” twenty-four hours a day, bombarding us through everything from the giant screen televisions to our cell phones chirping away with the latest terrorist bombing in the south Sudan, as if were right around the corner next to Cottondale, that we become jaded, inured to what passes for normal.

When I go on a mission trip to the boonies of Honduras or the Dominican Republic, I am largely cut off from instant news and communications with the world. It is most unfamiliar and sometimes disconcerting to face quiet time, or empty silence, in which the only source of entertainment is your mind, or what your imagination or senses may be perceiving, perhaps a bird or two perched on a tree, a farm truck rocking along to the market with a few campesinos hanging on, the singing at a raucus, Spirit-filled evangelical Church service on a Saturday evening in a tiny sanctuary overflowing with the faithful, dogs and kids scurrying around happily kicking a ratty old soccer ball and pretending they are in the Mundial scoring the winning goal for their country.

That Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world is no more important or germane than what the cook has prepared for our dinner that evening in the mission compound. The latter is far more immediate and important than the former.

In the old world of little news, you are what counted, not what some terrorist or zealot said or did ten thousand miles away.

Let me suggest setting aside some quiet time to read your Bible, turn off your access to Tweets, Facebook and the news bombarding you from every electronic canon in your home, and commune with yourself and your God. Believe me, he has a lot more to say than any talking head or talking idiot (remember this is a presidential election year) on the television, your computer, or cell phone.

Published as “The News Isn’t as Bad as it Seems” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday March 6, 2016

Posted in: History, News, Politics