In his mordant novel Scoop, Evelyn Waugh has one of his characters explain what “The News” is:
News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.
There is a great deal of wisdom in this little remark that I will attempt to unpack. It also, in my opinion, succinctly explains why we, who believe ourselves to be so brilliantly analytical and persuasive on sites like this one, have so little success in changing the opinions of our friends and neighbours (or awakening them as we might prefer to say).
First let us consider the “chap who doesn’t care much about anything”. There are, to be sure, two kinds of these but we’re only interested in the second. The person who really doesn’t care about anything doesn’t pay any attention to “The News”. No newspaper ritual for him, no dutiful watching “The News” at night; maybe he wants the sports news but he doesn’t care about “The News”. There are plenty of people like this. Some never were interested, others have given up pretending; as one has often said to me about political news: “What’s the point? There’s nothing I can do. It’s just depressing”. That’s a perfectly understandable point of view and it can be held by someone who, like the individual I’m thinking of, is generally aware that most of “The News” is propaganda or worse.
I’m not talking about people who don’t care much and don’t even pretend to care. What I am interested in are those people who do read newspapers, who do sit down at the TV: those who do devote a portion of their day to “The News”. Why would anyone who “doesn’t care much” do so? I can think of several reasons and these reasons, of course, overlap in many individuals. They may consider it to be a duty for a citizen to be to be informed and that they exercise that civic duty by paying attention to “The News” every day. Second, there may be an element of snobbery: because they “pay attention” and they are “concerned”, they are entitled to feel themselves superior to those lumps whose only interest is how their team did yesterday. “The News” provides an unending supply of conversational topics: everyone can talk about the current human interest story or project faux concern about tsunamis; those who wish to affect an interest in the outside world can express outrage at the destruction of “the last hospital in Aleppo”. And finally, there is simple habit: at breakfast there’s the paper, at night the TV news: you’ve been doing it for forty years, why stop now? A subset of followers of “The News” are politics junkies; but for many of them it’s a variation on team sports: “Did you hear what that idiot on the other political team just did? “
On the other hand, people who write on sites like this one or read them have broken away from “The News” habit. We are sceptical; suspicious; we notice that, all of a sudden, everybody is talking about the same thing in the same way and wonder what’s really going on; we remember what was said before; we research; we look up things; we compare: we no longer believe “The News”. That doesn’t make us smarter; it’s just a life choice. You can put it in terms of red pill and blue pill if you like – and from a propaganda perspective, there’s value in that analogy – but the essential difference between us and those who watch “The News” is that we do care much and they don‘t care much. And that leads to frustration on both sides of the care divide: we think that, just because these people spend time on “The News” that they are interested in the facts and subjects behind “The News”. But we’re wrong: they pay attention to “The News” out of a sense of duty, a feeling of superiority, a desire to participate in the latest narrative or habit. They’re not actually very interested in the subject matter: as Waugh understood, they don’t care much. They are not watching or reading critically. And they are certainly not interested in having us tell them more about the realities or, worse, telling them that they are being misled. They don’t really care about “the last hospital in Aleppo” but they do care about being told that they’re being deceived: “Are you saying I’m stupid?”.
And that leads us to the second half of Waugh’s comment. “it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead”. There’s no memory in “The News” for those who don’t care much: they have no memory that “the last hospital in Aleppo” was destroyed last week too, and the week before that and three times the week before that. If it’s not on “The News” any more, it doesn’t exist; if it’s not now, it’s not. Because they really don’t care much. Their motivation for paying attention to “The News” is not, in fact, or if so only very weakly, to become informed about hospitals in Aleppo, tsunamis or political developments in Sudan. There is of course a factual reality underneath “The News” – there are hospitals in Aleppo, the tsunami did happen, Sudan exists – but, seen through the lens of “The News”, it’s a transient and ephemeral factual base. It’s only news when it’s perceived and it ceases to be news when it’s not perceived. “The News” is a continual present. It is a rolling story, or series of stories: early reports of the tsunami hitting, rolling banner “Tsunami Watch”, our reporter on the scene, films and photos, teddy bears, smashed buildings, rescuers, funding appeals, talking heads, and the story fades away. Meanwhile another narrative has been building up to replace it. The stories roll on and on and there’s always a new cliffhanger to make you tune in tomorrow.
Waugh’s observation is profound indeed. It explains why so many people spend significant time ingesting “The News” and also why “The News” leaves so little trace. It explains why those of us who care much about the actual realities underneath “The News” have almost no success in persuading our news-watching neighbours that what they saw last night was partial, or slanted, or a lie. They don’t care much about it, they’re not really watching “The News” very deeply or with close attention and they quickly forget the stories as they roll by. They’re not stupid – although it’s tempting for those us who do care much to think so – they just don’t care much.
It’s rather depressing isn’t it? The ones who don’t bother to watch “The News” don’t care, and those who do watch “The News” don’t care either. The only encouraging thing that I can think of is that the people who watch “The News” will watch whatever is put in front of them: if the central narrative changes completely, it will still be “The News”.
(People can change of course although I suspect it’s a solitary occurrence when some excess makes an individual start to question the deception. I recommend Phil Butler’s book Putin’s Praetorians in this respect. It contains the testimonies of people who came to question the Russia narrative as presented by “The News”. But, in most cases, it wasn’t because somebody persuaded them, it was because they came to doubt it themselves. After that, persuasion had a chance to reinforce their new viewpoint.)