I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No news is no problem

Sorry for the lack of updates the last two weeks. I took a vacation and went down to Myrtle Beach and avoided the internet as much as possible. While there, I read a book called "The Black Swan" that deals with what is in some ways an really obvious premise: we can't know the future. However common sense this is, businesses and governments are often blind to it. They make forecasts, because it's obviously a good thing to plan and have goals. But, the problem often comes from the fact that they treat these forecasts as hard and fast reality instead of mere guess work. People seem built by evolution to take the present and project it out into the future. As a result, you wind up with people believing that housing prices and the stock market only go up, or that health care costs will only spiral out of control until everyone is bankrupted, or that a warming trend of a few decades is proof that the world is going to turn into a Venus-like hell where our cities vanish beneath oceans and what land is left is desert.

One of the counter-intuitive bits of advice the author gives is that people should stop reading newspapers and watching the news on a daily basis. He's making his argument mostly from a financial sense, since there is evidence that people who check the price of a stock frequently are less able to judge it's performance accurately than someone who only looks at it once a month or so. There's a tendency for people to confuse information with knowledge.

I've decided to follow this advice. I'm a news junky. I listen to NPR any time my radio is on in my car or my house. I frequently read two newspapers a day, one at lunch and a different one at dinner. Then, I spend hours in the evening cruising political sites like realclearpolitics and drudgereport. I think I can safely say that my typical day includes at least 4 hours devoted to consuming news. I don't think, however, that I wind up with 4 hours of knowledge for my efforts. So, I'm switching off NPR when I drive in favor of books on CD. I'm going to skip newspapers in favor of books when I eat alone. Instead of cruising realclearpolitics, I'll spend more time writing.

At least, that's the goal... who knows what the future will actually hold.

One reason I'm not that concerned that my knowledge of world events is going to suffer is that I really feel as if newspapers, NPR, and most news outlets have stopped reporting on world events in any meaningful way. Rather than spending a week reporting on the details of a climate change bill, NPR and cable news will instead bring on pundits to make claims and counterclaims and focus on what is likely to happen in upcoming votes. During political campaigns, there is almost no coverage at all of any issue with any substance or depth, and instead the news cycles are mainly dominated by reading the entrails of the polls and the airing the bloviations of spin doctors from the various campaigns.

The bias in our news system isn't one of liberal or conservative. It's one of punditry and prophecy over facts and history. Our news is forward focused, and recent history seems to vanish. The talking heads making inaccurate predictions six months prior are still on the air making predictions of what will happen next week. Actual reporting would, by neccessity, have to report on what has happened in the past. It would take time to gather actual data. But, time is no longer on the side of facts. The news cycle demands that something go out on the air every minute of the day. Reporters are to produce stories mere hours, or even minutes, before they hit the air. If a thing happened yesterday, it's old news, already forgotten. No one is going to spend weeks or months digging down to establish truth. I'm not certain that reporters or politicians or the citizens recognize truth any more. Everything is now just spin and position. Indeed, the more an "issue" is discussed by the media, the less sure I become of any actual facts underlying the debate.

So, I'm jumping off the wheel. I've been spun enough.


Estellye said...

For years I felt I better served the world by staying above the fray, as it were, and holding the light (not to get too esorteric about it, lol). But somewhere along the way I became addicted to media. I listened to NPR and watched C-SPAN. I refreshed news pages as often as I checked email and I read and wrote blogger's rants. It was bogging me down and cluttering my mind.

I've decided the way forward is balance, but it's been a hard thing for me to find. It seems as though total ignorance or over-exposure are the natural options and finding a healthy middle ground is the trickier path.

I respect your decision to choose more consciously when and how you engage in news gathering. I think audio books are a great option. I've started using those or audio lectures while doing my design work rather than listening to NPR and I feel more enriched and less frustrated. I still listen to "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" though, lol. ;)

Loren Eaton said...

The news media is also addicted to blood in the water. It may slightly prefer Red blood to Blue blood, but as long as someone's thrashing, they're happy.

Additionally, if you want some good, generally well-read short fiction for the drive, you may like Transmissions From Beyond, the podcast for Interzone magazine.

James Maxey said...

Loren, I've tried, but I've never been able to successfully follow audio fiction. If my mind wanders in traffic, I lose my place in the story. So, most of the books I'll be listening to are going to be history and science, and some humor, since I can normally focus on humor.

Which brings me to Estellye's comment about Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me. I love that show! One of my genuine worries is that I won't get the jokes any more. But, I still intend to listen. The show just gets better and better. I think Julia Sweeney is an excellent addition to the panelists. My fantasy panel, though, would probably be Paula Poundstone, Roy Blount, and Mo Rocca. They all have very different approaches to their humor, and play off well against one another.

Your comment about finding balance is also useful. I don't want to eliminate all news from my life, just the trivial chatter and reporting on the horse races. NPR actually has a few shows that manage to do solid reporting from time to time. I think that the episodes of This American Life that have been reporting on the banking, investment, and housing bubbles have been extremely well researched, unbiased, and remarkably adept at unravelling the spin and explaining how things actually unfolded. If more news was like this, I'd be glad to listen. Unfortunately, as Loren points out, most news is merely a feeding frenzy over the latest scandal or celebrity news.

And, we have only ourselves to blame. If we, the news consuming public, tuned in to in-depth news, it would be offered to us. But ratings flow toward the inane and sensational. We are victims not of bad media, but of bad consumption.

Estellye said...

I agree, I found the financial series on This American Life invaluable. That topic is about as far from being my area as it's possible to be, but they were able to make it accessible without sacrificing content.

The dynamic on Wait Wait is really good right now. I wouldn't want to see anyone go, but John Hodgeman (the PC Guy) has been a guest and I wouldn't mind if he joined the panel at some point. I think he'd be hilarious as a regular.

James Maxey said...

I loved the Not My Job with the PC guy. You're right, he'd be a great addition to the show. Though, at the risk of sounding very, very PC here, I would think maybe they would want to try to find someone other than just another white guy and/or woman. A month or two ago, there was some joke about affirmative action based on the Sotomeyor nomination. It happened I was listening the the show on my PC, and looking at the graphic that showed the the dozen most frequent cast members, and they're all white. It felt odd that they were making jokes about the supreme court not being ethnically diverse when they can't find even one black or hispanic comedian to add to the mix of the show. I assume they get away with it because it's radio. On TV, someone would probably have made this point by now.

Since I praised the in depth news reporting of This American Life, I think I'll also plug one of the last, unlikely sources of actual news I've found on a daily basis. There's a conservative talk show host called Neal Boortz. His show is pretty typical of the genre, lots of Obama bashing and shouts of liberal, liberal, liberal. But, at the noon hour every day, he starts the show by bringing in a reporter named Jamie Dupree and they talk about the news of the day for fifteen minutes or so. It's good radio because Jaime Dupree is extremely well informed, and whenever Neil Boortz will make some outrageous claim, Jaime will actually have the facts on hand to de-spin or refute the claim (or occasionally confirm it). Jaime doesn't often get baited into offering opinions, and, unlike almost any other media figure I can name, he frequently answers "I don't know" or "I haven't heard anything about that" to Neil's questions. I tune out the show after this segment, but if you're a serious news junkie and ever hear the segment, I bet you'll be hooked.

It's interesting to compare Jamie Dupree's answers to, say, Juan Williams on NPR. The question and answer format is similar, but Dupree will actually talk specifics about legislation, while Juan Williams is much more general.