FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Need to Know

News organizations are the beneficiaries of two basic but unrelated principles: the right to know and the need to know. The first is grounded politically and gives these organizations the license to invade our privacy and conceal sources of defamatory or illegally obtained information. The second is grounded existentially and is related to our survival, and like all evolutionary principles, once it is established it operates blindly and indiscriminately. Therefore, just as all dreams are reflexively distorted in order to protect us (the Freudian censor), whether or not their secrets are potentially harmful to our peace of mind, so the need to know operates in us whether or not a given piece of information is essential to our well-being, and therefore it expresses itself even when nothing is at stake but the satisfaction of our curiosity. This curiosity does not require a correct reading of events to satisfy itself. Any plausible set of facts will do. Curiosity then is very much like hunger: any food will alleviate it. Ironically, this is precisely what enables the news organizations to flourish despite the fact that more often than not their reading of events is anything but correct.

Evolution provides us with the tools of self-preservation. One of the most essential of these tools is our ability to recognize danger, namely the ability to read the environment correctly. Consequently, when matters are in doubt, the ensuing state of uncertainty produces anxiety and unrest as an evolutionary response, driving us, as it were, to clarify matters, whether they are life-threatening or trivial. Unless we are unconnected to the world or to ourselves, we always want to know what we do not know, what ISIS is up to, if it’s going to rain in the afternoon and who is sleeping with whom in Hollywood. And since very little that is labeled “news” has a direct and immediate effect on us, it is, again, really irrelevant what version of events we receive. Any version that is the least bit plausible will serve to establish order, satisfy curiosity, alleviate anxiety, calm the nerves. No one is keeping score. No one holds the pundits accountable for what they said a week ago or a month ago. No one even remembers. Nor does anyone remember who said the latest serial killer was twenty-five years old or who said he was twenty-eight years old, married or unmarried, born in Florida or Mississippi. It doesn’t matter which set of circumstances applies. It is not knowledge that we seek in the news but reassurance.

This is paradoxical of course, since the journalistic profession represents itself as setting great store by getting the facts straight. That is its entire raison d’être. Yet not only do they fail at this, it isn’t even required of them. It is not required because these facts are for the most part irrelevant to our daily concerns, though at the same time facts as such, any facts, are necessary for our peace of mind. Does this call into question the entire value of truth? Certainly it does insofar as journalistic truth is concerned, for when they aren’t entirely irrelevant, journalistic truths are generally shortsighted. They do not reveal social and historical processes, for the simple reason that journalists are not equipped to recognize such processes. They are not historians, scholars or political scientists. They are not writers or thinkers.

What journalists generally do get right are their headlines or news bulletins. Anything beyond this basic recitation of information that is gleaned from official sources, including the weather report and ball scores, quickly degenerates into opinion, speculation, gossip, innuendo and calumny. That is how talk shows and newspaper columns fill their time and space. At the end of the day an extremely distorted picture of the world is obtained, put together by people who rarely understand the languages and consequently the culture, religion, history and politics of the countries they report from and comment on and also lack the perception to understand their own country. For the public, this suffices. Half-digested in any case, it gives ordinary people something to hold on to, a version of reality that does not necessarily correspond to anything but is at least coherent and thus helps them get through the day.

Fred Russell is the author of the novels Rafi’s World  and The Links in the Chain.

More articles by:
June 19, 2018
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
We Can Thank Top Union Officials for Trump
Lawrence Davidson
The Republican Party Falls Apart, the Democrats Get Stuck
Sheldon Richman
Trump, North Korea, and Iran
Richard Rubenstein
Trump the (Shakespearean) Fool: a New Look at the Dynamics of Trumpism
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Protect Immigrant Rights; End the Crises That Drive Migration
Gary Leupp
Norway: Just Withdraw From NATO
Kristine Mattis
Nerd Culture, Adultolescence, and the Abdication of Social Priorities
Mike Garrity
The Forest Service Should Not be Above the Law
Colin Todhunter
Pro-GMO Activism And Smears Masquerade As Journalism: From Seralini To Jairam Ramesh, Aruna Rodrigues Puts The Record Straight
Doug Rawlings
Does the Burns/Novick Vietnam Documentary Deserve an Emmy?
Kenneth Surin
2018 Electioneering in Appalachian Virginia
Nino Pagliccia
Chrystia Freeland Fails to See the Emerging Multipolar World
John Forte
Stuart Hall and Us
June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail