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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.

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