Editor: Chase Whiteside (tumblr)
Managing Editor: Atom Vincent (tumblr)
Regular Contributors: Arvind Suguness, Erick Stoll
An Introduction, from Chase:
People are used to me whining about the news and usually come round to asking something like, Okay, you elitist luddite, where do you get your news?
I know they want me to say NPR or The Economist, and while it’s true that there are a lot of excellent news outlets and journalists (you’ll find them here), I always have a hard time answering the question because there’s so much more to say about this thing called The News than I have time to unpack. Besides, people don’t read anything on the internet. If you made it this far, you are a statistical anomaly.
So what-the-fuck is Read This, Not That?
We’re a group of news junkies concerned about the deteriorating and stupefying state of the news media. We’ve been sharing our favorite long-form pieces from magazines and journals for years now, and thought we’d share them with you.
Want to share one with us? Use the submit feature on the site.
We’ll be posting articles regularly that you can follow here, on Tumblr, on Facebook (http://facebook.com/readthisnotthat) or on Twitter (http://twitter.com/rtntnews).
Sometimes we might choose to cover the same topic from a variety of angles, other times we may choose to focus on something in the news, but we will never be governed by the preoccupations of the mainstream news cycle.
Okay, so, if you dare to take the time, and I hope you do, below is my heavily abbreviated (believe it or not) philosophy on The News, which will inform the curation of articles here on RTNT. So consider reading it. And sharing it with your friends.
See you with a new round of articles tomorrow,
Why Read This, Not That?
Of the thousands of news stories that you consume every year, how many lead you to make a better decision about your life? How many make any difference in your life at all, aside from giving you something “serious” to talk and worry about? It is hard for us news junkies to accept that little of the news we consume is of any utility to us whatsoever.
Sustaining a news industry requires that something be covered regularly. To get us to check in with the news every day, we have to believe that there is something new about the world that didn’t exist yesterday, something important enough to make keeping up with the news an imperative. But because important events don’t happen every day, the news is filled with stories of questionable value that are given outsize priority. Think Balloon Boy and Octo-mom, or the daily back and forth of a presidential race. If news outlets waited for something truly important to happen, they might go for days without anything to report. We would lose interest. Their revenues would wane. So they operate as if every news update is as important and as worthy of our attention as the one that preceded it. The function of newsmen is to dramatize the present.
Many people believe that the news makes them smarter. But if the goal is to become more informed about the world, consuming the news is often counterproductive. We become informed only of what makes the news: those stories that best serve the needs of news outlets trying to generate a day’s output and keep ratings and page views afloat. Complicated or abstract ideas that can’t be easily explained don’t make the news. It is true that the news gives us lots and lots of facts, but rarely do they give us a coherent or meaningful understanding of what’s happening in the world. Instead, we’re left with heads full of trivia.
If anything, the news actually misinforms us by trying to force the world’s complexities into simplistic news product. Of those stories that are truly important and worthy of coverage, as they sometimes are, your thoughts on the issue will be shaped by the hyperbolic, context-less, hastily gathered updates—“the latest”—that make up the news. Worse, with many outlets now presenting news through a partisan lens—further removing the news from reality—our preconceptions are affirmed even when they’re wrong. This hardly makes us smarter.
Worse, the news diverts our time and attention from the things that do make us smarter; from the higher quality—if less entertaining—information found in historical texts, in-depth magazine articles, books, and just by talking to one another (ideally about something other than the news.) But today, we don’t consider ourselves to have time for these things. As C. John Sommerville wrote in his book How The News Makes Us Dumb, “One would think that anything so ephemeral would have a hard time competing with great literature and thought. Quite the reverse. We have bought the idea that we’ve got to deal with the news first and then get to the rest if there is time left over.”
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with the news, which has direct and easily quantifiable effects on our democracy. The primary way if not the only way that the public knows what the government or corporations are up to is via the news. The news is also what shapes public opinion from which government action proceeds. Indeed, the Constitution of the United States is predicated upon the assumption of an informed and participating citizenry, and its framers took great effort to protect and encourage an independent press tasked with ensuring just that. The connection between vibrant journalism and vibrant democracy was understood as essential by the founders, who feared that without a news media to monitor and explain the government, American-style democracy would be imperiled. As Thomas Paine said in 1806, “The manners of a nation, or of a party, can be better ascertained from the character of its press than from any other public circumstance.”
A quality press is dependent primarily on its ability to produce and sustain journalism, which is something altogether different from the news. Most news is merely an aggregation of information that was always intended for public consumption—official statements (or officially leaked statements), press events, press releases, product announcements, public relations efforts, and so forth. This is fleshed out with other public happenings, chiefly: accidents, crime, the markets, and the weather. Because the news has to come up with a lot of new stories every day, but have a limited number of resources to produce it, outlets send reporters to the places they can reliably expect news to occur: capitol buildings, courthouses, press clubs, police stations, etc. An entire public relations industry has emerged to feed the insatiable news cycle in the form of press conferences, staged photo-ops, and press releases. In need of even more news, news outlets create the news themselves by staging interviews, debates, and talk shows. One wonders how much less news there would be without the news industry.
Today the government and corporate structures that direct society have become invariably more complex than they were in the time our nation was founded. Lippmann wrote that function of journalism was “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” As journalism withers, the structures that govern us remain out-of-view, their ugly sides hidden from us. We see only what they intend us to see.
Our education system is scarcely keeping up with academic basics, and certainly doesn’t prepare us to understand the highly commercialized world in which we live. Out of the abstract, this is true in the most immediate sense: how many Americans could reasonably explain how the cellphones in their pockets work? I suspect very few. How many could speak to the working conditions of the factories that assembled them? Or I wonder, how many people could explain how we ended up with a mere four cellphone providers to choose from? Or how those companies determine what to charge us? Most people never consider such things because they feel powerless to change them. On the contrary, how many Americans could reasonably explain the latest smartphone offerings from Apple and Google? I suspect that many people could. They might even be able to tell you which of the latest phones has the fastest processor (though not what that does) and which one they’d like to own. They know these things because these are the kinds of frivolous things that make the news.
This ignorance extends to government. The public is routinely expected to understand and vote on things far more intricate than anything for which their education has prepared them. For most, understanding the modern economy is as far out of grasp as the origins of the universe. It is unreasonable to expect the public to comprehend the role of credit default swaps, certified debt obligations, or mortgage backed securities in the 2008 financial collapse. Even the fine print on a credit card agreement or mortgage is written in a language few can understand (not that they’d have an option to object if they did). This concern extends beyond individuals: much of the financial collapse was caused by unscrupulous lenders who misled aspiring homeowners into subprime, variable-rate mortgages they could neither understand nor afford. And it isn’t just the electorate that is unable to comprehend the economy, but also our legislators and regulators, who failed to predict or prevent the market’s collapse.
Now we’re expected to vote on politicians and their different prescriptions for repairing a broken economy we still don’t really understand. To begin to understand, our news media would be required to follow the Hutchins Commission and Lippman’s ideal and do the hard work of explaining it to us—not just how the economy collapsed, but how it’s supposed to work normally, and what the different political solutions being proposed would do to fix it. Also, it’d be nice to know if some of those competing proposals are better than others, if they have historical precedent, or are based on some economic principle. The news, of course, rarely does this. It assumes you’re too stupid for that. Perhaps this is true, and you are, but for that the news must share some culpability: as our world has grown more complex, the news has only gotten more simplistic.
This gives journalism, especially investigative journalism, a more important role than ever before. What quality journalism seeks to do, different from the news, is to explain the complicated truths that exist behind what is presented to us. To be skeptical of the official statements of corporations and governments. To embrace the abstract. To reveal the world in all of its ugliness. Journalism is the public apparatus for monitoring powerful institutions and holding them accountable. But to do this requires time and space and depth, things that are mostly antithetical to our modern news media. That’s why the highest quality journalism tends to be found in the Sunday newspapers and in books and long-form magazine articles and in documentary films. Perhaps if you quit the news, you’ll actually have time for them.
Given that all information is free on the internet, one might think that the highest quality information would prosper. But even if proper journalism were fully funded, it would have a hard time competing in this environment. Given unlimited options, we tend to choose what pleases us most in the present (what is entertaining), not what is good for us in the long run (what is informative). We have a taste for junk. Alex Jones, of the Harvard Center for the Press, uses a food analogy to describe this: “Americans have walked into a cavernous room spread with a buffet of media choices ranging from the equivalent of haute cuisine to Elvis’ favorite peanut-butter-and-bacon deep-fried sandwiches… Based on our national history of succumbing to temptation despite our knowledge of what we should be consuming, it is easy to imagine the media equivalent of chronic obesity… We seem poised as a nation to be overfed but under nourished.”
You are what you read. But in a time of unprecedented media abundance, it can be hard to know what is truly worth reading and what isn’t. Read This, Not That is dedicated to curating substantial articles that truly inform, with an emphasis on history and context, and in opposition to the speed and frivolity that characterize popular internet aggregators like the Huffington Post. We have no interest in BREAKING NEWS! or in perpetuating shallow political news narratives ala Politico. We’ll be posting content regularly, and encourage you to give us feedback or to submit an article you think is worthy of being shared. In the meantime, we encourage you to stop reading the daily news, so that you’ll stop financing the sideshow, and have time leftover for the good stuff.
- Chase Whiteside & Erick Stoll