The Case for Good News
By Art Carey
Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology Summit (MAPP)
October 26, 2013
During my 36 years in the newspaper business, I often wondered whether journalists are primarily romantics or cynics. Of course, they are probably a little bit of both. But there’s no doubt that a romantic impulse propelled many of my colleagues into the profession: the desire to fix the world, to shine light into dark places, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They certainly weren’t drawn by the lure of riches (except for some of their TV brethren), because newspaper salaries continue to be abysmal. In fact, at The Philadelphia Inquirer, my colleagues have had to suffer two pay cuts in the last few years as the paper struggles to survive and eke out a profit.
Cynics expect the worst and glory in exposing and publicizing it; romantics expect the best and are shocked when they discover that the world is not a Disney-like utopia and that not everyone behaves according to their ideals.
Unfortunately, the news, by its very nature, tends to be negative and bad. It’s not news when an airplane lands safely; it is news when it crashes. It’s not news when a local official serves his community faithfully for years; it is news when he embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance Las Vegas vacations and to construct a second home on the Jersey Shore. It’s the aberrations that capture attention and generate headlines.
As author and former New York Times reporter Gay Talese has observed: “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places....Gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.”
The constant barrage of negative information distorts reality, frays our nerves, poisons our outlook. The relentless presentation of problems and issues leads to “crisis fatigue,” making us feel fearful, frustrated, impotent, discouraged. The news, in short, can not only spoil your day but also threaten your mental health.
Many years ago, The Inquirer had an advertising slogan: “It can make your day!” In my mind, I quickly changed that to: “It can break you day!” There’s nothing worse than waking up in a sunny mood and picking up the paper and gazing at the front page, which immediately clouds your disposition with tales of strife, natural and man-made disaster, human misdeeds, depravity, knavery and pigheadedness, not to mention the sorry realization that far too many people are liars, phonies, scoundrels, idiots and nitwits.
To me, the news often seems like so much so much trivia and ephemera, sound and fury signifying nothing, packaged in sensational confections of breathless urgency, most of it either boring or depressing, a daily dose of dismal and stultifying psychic clutter and mental static that we don't really need to know, all with the life span of an adult mayfly, perishable as today’s fresh bread, concocted by harried editors who are reflexively drawn to controversy and conflict, the obvious and superficial, and defiantly wedded to convention and suspicious of imagination, complexity, nuance, profundity and the slightest deviation from standard practice.
Little wonder that alternative health sage Andrew Weil recommends what he calls a “news fast.”
In his book Spontaneous Healing, Weil writes: “A major source of my own mental turmoil is the news. The percentage of stories that make me feel good is very small. The percentage of stories that make me feel anxious or outraged is very large and increasing. As news media focus more and more on murder, mayhem and misery, it is easy to forget that we have a choice as to whether to let this information into our minds and thoughts. I find it so useful to disengage myself from it that I recommend ‘news fasts.’”
In his more recent book, Spontaneous Happiness, Weil elaborates:
“If you habitually tune in to news programs that make you angry and distraught, chances are you will spend less time in the zone of serenity and contentment. The challenge is to exercise conscious control over what you pay attention to. The world is both wonderful and terrible, beautiful and ugly. At any moment one can choose to focus on the positive or negative aspects of reality. Without denying the negative, it is possible to practice focusing more on the positive, especially if you want to shift your emotional set point in that direction.”
Weil advises that we take particular care with our choices of media. “A great deal of the content is designed to induce excitement and tension,” he says. “Often it exacerbates anxiety and the sense of being overwhelmed and out of control.”
In the late ‘90s, I made a valiant attempt to buck this trend. I proposed a column called “This Life,” that was meant to be an oasis of optimism, an irony-free zone for those who complain that newspapers contain nothing but bad news, flash and trash and celebrity meringue. Schopenhauer once said, “The first 40 years of life give us the text. The next 30 supply the commentary.” Sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, “This Life” was an attempt to stimulate that commentary, through a thoughtful essay, an illuminating profile, an inspiring tale.
My approach was guided in part by the words of Horace, the great Roman poet who summarized the purpose of poetry thusly: dulce et utile, to be sweet and useful, to entertain and inform, to delight and teach.
I was guided as well by the wise words of the legendary newspaper editor William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas:
“Passing the office window every moment is someone with a story that should be told. If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, of joys, of base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own, which he thinks so peculiarly isolated from the web of life, how much kinder, how much gentler he would be. And how much richer life would be for all of us.”
I was also inspired by the words of Henry David Thoreau: “To affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts.” If I ever run or own a newspaper, those words will be proclaimed under the nameplate.
Thoreau embraced the idea of a “news fast” long before the term was coined by Weil. His opinion of newspapers was, to say the least, low. Some samples:
* “It is surprising what a tissue of trifles and crudities make the daily news. For one event of interest, there are 999 insignificant, but about the same stress is laid on the last as on the first.”
* “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter – we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for myriad instances and applications?”
* “To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”
* “When I have taken up the paper, or the Boston Times, with my cuffs turned up, I have heard the gurgling of the sewer through every column, I have felt that I was handling a paper picked out of the public sewers, a leaf from the gospel of the gambling house, the groggery and the brothel, harmonizing with the gospel of the merchants’ exchange.”
Thomas Jefferson is famous for his ringing statement in defense of the press: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
But at other times and in other circumstances, an exasperated Jefferson declared:
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
And: “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.”
And: "I deplore... the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them... .These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief.”
When I was in journalism school, back in 1975, my reporting professor, for some crazy reason, circulated a piece from the New York Times Magazine titled “The Last Article.” In it, Mark Harris, the novelist and author of Bang the Drum Slowly, argued for freedom from the press and ruminated about our daily addiction to news in a way that would have pleased Jefferson, Thoreau and Weil:
“Middle-aged and older people in general underestimate their own powers of observation. They devour the media when in fact they might preserve both time and energy by listening to the outer world with partial attention only. Those of us who have seen the cycles around so many times need no longer be diverted by repetition – unless, of course, it’s repetition we care for, as a kind of absent-minded amusement. We are capable of an economy of observation. We know what we can do without. We know that all games are less than ‘crucial’ and we know the difference between a crisis and a merely recurring event. The older we grow the more shrewdly we draw sound conclusions from minimal clues.
“The news that really matters will reach us. If it really matters, it forces itself upon us. We will be compensated for the lost data by our experienced perceptions. The mind provides surprises once we free it from the sight and sound of the powerful attractions of today, permitting it privacy, silence and self-direction. Often we then think past the raucous diversions to the truer issues.
“The media are the opiate of the people. They substitute for our minds, which wither every day for lack of the habit of using them. We have permitted the world of the journalist to become more real to us than the world of our senses, thus restricting our options and suffocating our imagination….”
My beloved “This Life” column lasted only two years. During that time, even though it was buried on page three of the features section, it attracted a loyal, thoughtful and grateful following. I was having a ball, operating in overdrive, exercising my talents to the fullest, and serving the paper and its readers, I believed, in a singular way. It was a pleasure to be able to indulge my bent for pretty writing and public thinking. Then new editors came aboard and killed it. Not flashy enough, they said. Not newsy or sensational enough for page one.
I was heartbroken. My sails fell slack. I was in the years, as Wordsworth says, that bring “the philosophic mind.” Normal journalism seemed inane and simpleminded to me -- glorified stenography about glorified gossip, too transitory and meaningless, shallow and superficial, appallingly bereft of perspective and depth. I felt like a Rolls-Royce engine writing Chevrolet stories. I began to share the disillusionment of Russell Baker, who later became a popular columnist for the New York Times.
In his book The Good Times, Baker writes:
“In 1961, I was 36, had been 14 years in the business, and was restless. I had begun to think of myself as grown-up. I had decided that while reporting was a delightful way to spend a youth, it was not a worthy way for a grown man to spend his life. At least not for this grown man. The indignities of the reporter’s life no longer seemed like fun, but just indignities.
“I was sitting on the marble floor in a corridor of the Senate Office Building one day when I experienced a moment of vivid inner clarity and realized that I was sick of it.
“With a half dozen other reporters, I was covering a meeting of the Armed Services Committee. The committee usually met in private, doors locked against the public. Doing public business in private was common practice at the Capitol, so reporters spent a lot of time idling outside closed doors. Afterward, a couple of senators usually came out to posture for television and issue hollow, misleading or deceptive accounts of what had happened.
“Sitting there, looking down the long marble tunnel toward the elevator, I thought of my father. Maybe it was the marble that did it. He had been a stonemason. I thought:
“Here I am, 36 years old. When my father was 36, he had been dead three years. Still, he managed to build something, to leave something behind that can still be seen, touched, used. Given three years more than my father had, how have I used the time? I have built nothing worth leaving and don’t even know how. Instead, I spend my life sitting on marble floors, waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.”
In another context, Russell wrote something else that resonated with me:
“Finally, I just got bored. I had done enough reporting. I began to feel like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Carrying that typewriter in one hand and that suitcase in the other and a dirty old raincoat into one more hotel lobby. It came to seem that this wasn’t a worthy way for a grown man to spend his life.
“You have good seats, sure, but you’re always on the sidelines. You’re not making anything. Auden has a wonderful essay --- it’s in The Dyer’s Hand – about how young people want to be writers. He says it’s something the Greeks understood. The writer is somebody who makes something with his own hands. And he draws the distinction between being a maker and a drudge.
“Work is what a freeman did, and drudgery is what slaves did. Kids instinctively grasp that writing is being a maker. But reporting is drudgery.”
In the next decade, in order to survive, the dead-tree newspaper you are familiar with now will become perforce all-digital, available only on computer screens and smart phones, much to the dismay of many older, traditional readers.
“Millions of Americans have come to regard the act of reading a daily newspaper— on paper — as something akin to being dragged by their parents to Colonial Williamsburg,” NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has rightly noted. “It's a tactile visit to another time -- flat, one-dimensional, unexciting, emitting a slight whiff of decay. It doesn't refresh. It offers no choice. Hell, it doesn't even move.”
As newspapers and magazines strive desperately to cling to their remaining readers, there’s growing recognition among the more enlightened of the value and necessity of stories that exalt and edify, uplift and inspire. Often, these are stories about extraordinary ordinary people who are living with purpose and passion, pursuing quirky pastimes or interests, propagating goodness in their particular corners of the universe, reminding us of the power of the human spirit, and the magic of wonder and awe.
A recent Wharton study of the most e-mailed stories in the New York Times found that they tended to be about emotion, wonder and awe, topics that open and broaden the mind.
Unfortunately, there’s still a conviction in some newsrooms, and among some hard-boiled editors, that news isn’t really news unless it’s negative, unless it condemns, exposes, ridicules or embarrasses. Snark and irony, the insouciant smirk and supercilious sarcasm are prized as hip manifestations of clever wit and mature cynicism. Positive stories, meanwhile, are derided as “soft,” often dismissed as fluff and puffery. But good news doesn’t have to be smarmy and treacly. Positive stories can be executed with rigor and sophistication. They can be “thought scoops,” reported and written with insight and imagination, color and style, by “investigative moralists” who illuminate the way we live by gathering “the news of feeling,” which often can be far more revealing and truthful than the “important” and portentous headline stories on page one. There is (and ought to be), more to life – and the news – than crime and government, cops and courts, politics and elections, scandal and corruption.
Here are some examples of what I’d like to see more of more often to offset the depressing news on the front page:
The news of feeling: Often the traditional questions of journalism (who?, what?, when?, where? and why?), don’t go far enough. Many stories fail to address two additional and more fundamental questions: So what? And who cares? Much more telling, moreover, may be this question: How did a particular news event make us feel? And respond? And what does how we feel and respond say about us and our times?
The nature of heroes: At a time when the media are obsessed with celebrities and the apotheosis of the worthless, we have lost sight of what it means to be a true hero, a word devalued through overuse and inappropriate use.
Ordinary people: Many seemingly ordinary people are quite extraordinary, their private struggles and ambitions far more worthy of attention and celebration than the strutting and rutting of vainglorious politicians, shallow TV and movie stars, thuggish pro athletes, and greedy corporate moguls.
Quirks, pastimes and passions: The wacky and wonderful ways we distract ourselves and seek meaning and fulfillment during our precious instant on Planet Earth.
The power of one: The amazing ability of a single individual to initiate change, make a difference, elevate our aspirations. The bracing possibility of becoming, as the great physician-philosopher Lewis Thomas once put it, “uniquely useful.” The stirring sagas of those who persist and persevere against all odds.
Imparting wisdom: The human thirst for answers to the Big Questions and the eternal mysteries is never slaked. Stories that offer wisdom, evoke wonder and awe, and nourish the spirit and soul captivate readers and may be the partial salvation of newspapers and magazines. “Any journalist worth his or her salt knows the real story today is to define what it means to be spiritual,” Bill Moyers once said. “This is the biggest story not only of the decade but of the century.”
The thought scoop: Not all stories are announced at press conferences or revealed in government reports. A sharp eye for trends, fresh ideas and the news that oozes rather than breaks may provide a more accurate and insightful picture of what’s really going on, those subtle tectonic shifts that transform culture and society.
Beloved and unforgettable: Sharing the character and deeds of those cherished people whose sacred memory time will never erase.
Steady excellence: The value of a career, the worth of a life, is the diligent application of our talents, day in and day out, the constant pursuit of perfection, the sum of our quotidian efforts, humble and paltry individually perhaps, grand and glorious collectively. A salute to those who earn our respect and gratitude through consistent craftsmanship and reliably stellar performance over time.
For all their manifold faults and limitations, I still believe in the value and relevance of newspapers. In whatever form it eventually takes, the newspaper still has the potential to be not only “the poor man’s university” but also a mighty platform for elucidating and improving the human condition. It is still the place to spotlight the odd and quirky, the new, different and surprising, stuff that’s unavailable elsewhere and makes people exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know that!”
The newspaper can and should be a lively record and vivid chronicle of our daily struggles, triumphs, tragedies and sorrows; a goad, cheerleader and report card, setting standards and expectations; a monitor and watchdog, holding the high and mighty to account; an instrument of compassion and social justice; a daily storybook about human endeavor, full of tales that teach and delight, inform and entertain, confirm, confound and provoke, and feed and enrich the mind and soul; a window into the life and times of others; a looking glass in which we see our own lives reflected, as well as the problems, progress and promise of our towns, cities and nation; a catalyst for civic conversation and engagement; a loom on which we weave our perceptions and create that fabric of common values, dreams, hopes and aspirations we call community, and which often spells the difference between merely enduring and existing and joyously flourishing and living.
For 34 years, Art Carey was a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, staff writer, editor and columnist. He still contributes the “Well Being” column to the paper as well as occasional features.