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  • The Full-Court Press of Reason

    On newspapers and gut reactions

    by Jack Beatty

    April 9, 1997

    I have not read a newspaper in six weeks. I can't spare the time: I'm writing a book that my publisher wants very soon. So instead I get all my news from National Public Radio. I hear the news rather than read it, which makes this difference: the heard world seems much less rational to me than the read world.

    bard picture Reporters for the papers I used to read -- The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal -- are paid to make sense of the news even if it doesn't make sense. With generous column inches to fill, they give the news context and set it in perspective. This tames the news. Processed through a contextual filter, President Clinton's sleazy 1996 campaign -- like Wagner's music -- is not as bad as it sounds. Taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from big donors is the norm in U.S. politics, and -- in context, in perspective -- Clinton's coffees are just an especially tacky version of the usual thing. Why pick on him? It's a bad system.

    This is what a good newspaper does for -- or, I submit, to -- its readers. It domesticates them. It buries their anger under avalanches of complication. Listening to NPR's necessarily brief updates on the Clinton scandals, I want to lead a march on Washington. Reading about the scandals in the newspapers just left me with something to think about. But I don't want to think about it. I want to scream about it.

    This brief experience of newspaper deprivation makes me question the notion that readers of news are more involved citizens than news watchers or listeners. I wonder if it might be truer to say that readers of news are less involved, because of what reading does to them.

    Several years ago the Kettering Foundation upset a similar piece of conventional wisdom, which went like this: The less you know about politics and government, the more alienated you are from them. The Kettering study found that the more people knew, the more they felt alienated. The authors of the study called this phenomenon "informed alienation."

    But, the news reader may well ask, isn't wanting to scream a sign of alienation? I don't think so, and I have Shakespeare on my side. "If we talk of reason/ Let's shut our gates and sleep," Troilus says in Troilus and Cressida, and continues, "reason and respect / Make livers pale, and lustihood deject." Reading the news makes your liver pale. All that context, perspective, complication, qualification, and balance -- the full-court press of reason -- leaves your lustihood deject.

    We need less reason and more outrage as we follow the news. So two cheers for gut reactions!


  • More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound
    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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