To think about the news first ask if it is news

At every turn we face a complicated world of different perspectives, whether in our everyday or virtual worlds, where conflicting opinions demand our attention. The reality is that much of the dialogue and few of the opinions are based on news, that is, “noteworthy information.” Friday afternoon (3/22/19) it was announced that the ‘Mueller Report,’ the report of the Special Counsel investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election and to determine if there were any connections to the Trump campaign, was complete and had been submitted to the Attorney General. Thereafter every news channel, mainstream and cable, talked about little else. And, yet, no one had actually read the report. Except for the factual notice (announcement, “tidings”) about the process and reminders of why the special counsel was appointed and the mandated scope of the investigation, there was no news. That is, there was no more noteworthy information. There was, I was going to say, speculation, but speculation means “considered attention,” “intelligent contemplation,” or “the pursuit of the truth by means of thinking.” (https://www.etymonline.com/) No, this was not speculation on Friday night (and on into the weekend); it was conjecture, the act of supposing, assuming, and interpreting.

Conjecturing, supposing, and assuming have become the primary substance of our political and, thus, our civic conversation. The current condition of our media enabled conversations were described by Neil Postman in 1985 in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business where he wrote: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” It is unnerving that this assessment was made almost 35 years ago and the condition of our cultural conversation, especially political dialogue, has only declined further with the development and spread of social media. The response to the release of the Mueller report is only the most recent example of the lack of dialogue that the maintenance of a democratic society requires.

The commentariat, or punditocracy, was quick to contribute to the spectacle outlining how partisans were going to their ‘corners.’ The image of wrestling or boxing fits too nicely with Postman’s description. However, media personalities are not the only ones employing these alternatives to actual thinking and we are in serious trouble if we do not offer another way to address the social and environmental challenges we face. There are no corners in figuring out the answers to essential questions: safe air and water, clean energy and climate change, immigration and refugee crises, ongoing and potential wars, and violations of human rights, to name a few. Different perspectives become important when the questions are critical to the sustainability of the environment, national security, civil and human rights, or the health of the general population.

In the infotainment world (https://www.medialit.org/reading-room/whatever-happened-news) every point of view elicits multiple contradictions. Maybe we need to stop watching the ‘show’ where one opinion elicits one or more contradictory replies not based on facts, analysis, or consequences. We do need ways, however, to make sense of these conflicts about how we each see the world, that is, “what is real” and determine the best answers to the challenges that confront us?

I propose a substitute for conjecture, suppose, and assume. It is review, reflect, and respond, although in some cases the last step might be to resist. As before, I note the meaning of the words: review is to consider or discuss critically; reflect is to take thought for, to turn or bend back; and respond is to give a reply. It is a process of thinking about knowledge, what is known and why, and what needs to be known; a way of learning about the lived experiences of people, especially those who are different from us; and analyzing problems from the perspective of those who are typically forgotten, and in the context of larger systems. There are probably a variety of traditions, or disciplines that use similar lenses. For me this framework comes out of the Human Science tradition, which arose in efforts to transcend reductionism in the late 19th and early 20th century in order to explore what it means to be human through more expansive and diverse approaches to research. The characteristics drawn from these conceptual dialogues include: 1) an appreciation of multiple ways of knowing and diverse belief systems, 2) the use of modes of inquiry focused on understanding the meaning people attribute to their experience, and 3) a commitment to theories of change that are emancipatory and dependent on the context of people and their communities. In succeeding weeks my intention is to respond to the ‘news’ to outline the practical application of this framework to some of our most challenging questions so that we can act in ways that support real conversations and collaboration.

JoAnn McAllister

1 Comment

  1. Bob McAndrews on April 9, 2019 at 10:26 am

    JoAnn, this is a great post. I throughly agree with your plea for what I refer to as thoughtful and considered approaches to filtering “news” (Bateson’s notion of news as a “difference that makes a difference”) from conjecture, supposition, etc. This is, of course, not so easy, considering the onslaught of what you refer to as “infotainment”. One way we might help others to gain more balanced and genuine access to professional journalism, is to expose them to those sources which can be trusted – perhaps even some sources which may be a bit antithetical to our own beliefs. For a New Year’s gift I wanted to give a number of friends and relatives subscriptions to the New Yorker, but because of the cost and the requirement to have to read more than they might have wanted, I decided to give them subscriptions to the Atlantic Monthly instead. I figured that they would at least have a source that prized professional journalism. My own situation with regard to the aftermath of the election of our current huckster-in-chief, was to temporarily avoid most news sources, but as things continued to devolve under the present administration I began subscribing to a variety of publications and watching multiple new programs and accessing multiple online news sources. Having a healthy “crap-detector” is essential if one is to take this approach. I would invite others to comment on how they deal with the infotainment onslaught and how they manage their own news intake.

    – Bob McAndrews

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