What Do We Want from the News?

This post was originally published at Public Seminar on January 3, 2018.

What do we want from the news?

This strikes me as an increasingly important question as the task of actually getting the news requires that we sift gigabytes of knowledge, errata, and trash all mixed up together on the Internet. Do we want to be entertained by the news, as David Tewkesbury and Jason Rittenberg have argued in News on the Internet (Oxford, 2012)? Do we want the truth? Sometimes, whether I am watching Fox or MSNBC, reading the opinion section of The New York Times or USA Today, it’s a little hard to believe that facts don’t look and behave differently, depending on how you frame them. Do people even want facts? Sometimes Americans’ resistance to fact claims makes it even hard to believe that we want the truth — or that we would recognize the truth if it came up and poked us in the eye.

“The truth!?” as Jack Nicholson spits acidly at Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men(1992): “You can’t handle the truth!”

Or maybe, following Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities (1991), it’s connection we want from the news — connection to a national experience that is broadly and simultaneously shared. I am not sure what I am longing for from the news, but since I was eighteen years old, I have started almost every day with a newspaper, or two, or three. At Yale in the 1970s a subscription to the New York Times came at a rock-bottom price, a marketing strategy to win us over for life, even the conservatives among us. Not inconsequentially, having your own newspaper made you feel like a real grownup. Although the science majors were already hustling up to Science Hill by 8:00, we humanities and social science types read the paper and discussed the news at long, waxed dining hall tables over multiple cups of coffee.

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