By Lionel Shriver
Picture a church basement. Crumbed with supermarket own-brand biscuits, sympathetic fellow sinners perch on folding chairs. Teabags bob in their Styrofoam cups of Tetley whitened with semi-skim.
My name is Lionel Shriver, and I am a news-aholic.
I begin my day in London loading The Daily Telegraph on a tablet. Eschewing the features, I knock back most of the hard news (which chimes chillingly with hard booze) and always treat myself to the letters (the best part). But that’s just the start. I move on to the New York Times app. Since America’s “paper of record” could occupy my entire day, chugging maybe fifteen articles, putting away a few shots of the Opinion pages, and gulping a goodly proportion of “Most Popular” passes for restraint. Frightening myself, before finally getting to work, I sneak a furtive sip of the Guardian webpage.
I’d like to claim that the above takes “only” a couple of hours. But we’re often talking three.
In the effectual oyster of my afternoon, I will often take nips of the New York Times webpage, just to make sure nothing big has happened.
I begin the evening by switching on the TV – incriminatingly, already tuned to Sky News, of which I take a bracing slug. After hitting Channel 4 News (55 minutes), I’ll down Newsnight (45 minutes) with my co-dependent husband (both shows on series record). Before bed, we’ll indulge in an informational nightcap: the CBS News from the US (30 minutes). Should Sky once more not have broadcast the programme in defiance of its schedule, rage ensues: the telltale tantrum of the addict denied her substance.
To come completely clean, I also keep on hand a six-pack of news-related documentaries. I subscribe to The Spectator, Standpoint, and The New Yorker; finally letting subscriptions to The Week and The Economist lapse last year constituted my quail-sized version of cold turkey. But even excluding these top-up sources of binge consumption, two hours of newspapers + 2.5 hours of broadcast news = 4.5 hours minimum of drinking in news, news, news every bloody weekday, and often a great deal more.
In my pale defence, I multitask. To get the blood running, I read the papers standing up. During Channel 4 News, I exercise. In front of Newsnight, we snack on popcorn and conduct a running discourse, citing contradictions, exasperations, and piquancies – since I cannot listen to this stuff with my mouth shut, which drove my husband crazy until he learned to hit the pause button. (Alas, these excitable interludes mean that Newsnight lasts even longer, and we won’t eat dinner until well after midnight.) During the CBS News, we floss.
Nevertheless, how much of a 16-hour waking day is discretionary, even for the self-employed? Subtract out cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing up, laundry, showering and evacuating, dressing and disrobing, email, chatting with friends and family, preparing cups of coffee, maintaining a Georgian house that’s eternally falling apart, and attending the odd dental appointment, and maybe ten hours remain – nearly half of which I lavish on the news. It’s astounding that I ever read a book, much less write one.
I haven’t always been like this – but in recent years the problem has only got worse. This allocation of my life is unconsidered. I didn’t decide to devote half my discretionary time to news, any more than alcoholics declare in childhood, “When I grow up, I’m going to drink two litres of vodka every day!” But if the unthinking nature of this slide into addiction is disturbing, maybe that means it’s time to think about it.
What drives news addiction?
I appear to believe that time spent on news is ipso facto productive. Cheesy, frivolous reality shows like Come Dine With Me can provoke the existential willies: Oh, no, I’m frittering my life away on rubbish! But news is serious. Breakfasting on a rich diet of broadsheet journalism makes me feel like a smart person. Although a novelist is free to renounce the factual universe for fanciful worlds of her own devising, news OD has grown disconcertingly central to my idea of myself.
First and foremost, then, news addiction springs from vanity.
I grew up in a liberal American household much invested in being “interested in the rest of the world,” if this lofty internationalism was sometimes priced at my parents’ diminished interest in the world closer to hand: their own kids. In my family, we’ve long used politics as filler and distraction. Affairs of state provide a range of happily inexhaustible default topics. Trading predictable, broadly unanimous opinions mercifully substitutes for raw interaction with one another. We thereby steer clear of real emotions, not all of which would be pretty. These days when I visit my elderly parents and discussion runs dry, we can always resort to Trump. Our convergence on the same dismay reinforces our joint sense of virtuous perspicacity, fortifying a clubby, self-congratulatory us-versus-them dynamic painfully standard in the United States. Mutual huffiness helps us to believe in the moment that we have more in common than we do.
This deployment of “the rest of the world” to avoid the folks actually sitting around the dinner table used to distress me, but I’ve gradually morphed into the same type – who can yak away for hours about the dysfunctional American health-care system and never betray what she’s feeling. My bristling arsenal of current events can keep other people at bay. Abstract interest in theoretical others substitutes for authentic interest in all-too-palpable others – who might be boring, or might demand something more from me other than a thin, elective form of attention. I can always put down the paper, switch off my iPad, or change the channel. Friends, relatives, and neighbours are harder to walk away from. News provides the illusion of truth, the illusion of insight; by contrast, people in the flesh are damnably difficult to know.
News addiction is further driven by that contemporary cliché, fear of missing out. While seismic stories will sooner or later arrive on one’s doorstep unsolicited, I prefer sooner. Even in the miniature context of my marriage, I’m keen to hear about big turns of the wheel first. As I’d dislike learning about a terrorist knife attack on London Bridge second-hand, this spring it pleased me instead to rattle off the details when my husband got home, because I’d been glued to Sky for the last hour. Yet comically, my having derived the story from the news implied that a vast team of journalists had learned about the assault before I did. All news is hearsay.
I bequeathed this determination to head the queue at the information booth to the 13-year-old protagonist in my last novel, The Mandibles. Willing Darkly insists on watching an historic presidential address in real time, not later on the internet – because “the copy would not be happening. He couldn’t explain it, but that made it completely different.” Besides which, “big news got old fast. If you waited, somebody was bound to tell you about it before you learned it for yourself. They’d change the words around, too, and get everything in the wrong order. Willing hated being told what had happened. The telling people always seemed so smug and powerful, and they maintained their power by keeping their special knowledge to themselves for as long as possible. So they would feed you bits of information in sadistic dribs, like dog treats for Milo. You couldn’t trust the telling person either. Even if they claimed to hand over all that they knew, they only conveyed the part that they liked or especially hated. Being told – it was not the way to find anything out.”
My horror of being told about major events played out in The Post-Birthday World, when my main character and her snooker-player boyfriend have such a heated, protracted, all-consuming row that they don’t leave the house, answer the phone, turn on a television, radio, or computer, or buy a newspaper. Having been mired in petty jealousies and grudges, they only learn about 9/11 two solid days after the attacks. “I have never,” the protagonist says, finally bringing home a stack of newspapers, “been so ashamed.”
Keeping up to date does save you from the embarrassment of disproportionate absorption in the personal while greater events than your dumb little life are afoot. And most of us have our where-we-were-when tales in relation to JFK’s or Martin Luther King’s assassination and the OJ Simpson verdict, as well as the likes of 7/7 in Britain, or 9/11. Nevertheless, this obsession with being one of the first to find out what we’ll all know in short order is irrational, and “I-I’ve got a se-ecret!” is utterly childish. If you’re not yourself a local medic or policeman, it really doesn’t matter whether you learn about the attacks in Nice, or Beslan in North Ossetia, or the Bataclan in Paris, a little sooner or later than everyone else. The power of being “the telling person” is false and silly.
It is important to me to be informed – or appear to be informed – in social settings, and that goes doubly for professional ones. In an event in Paris in May, an audience member asked what I thought about Trump’s announcement of a sizeable arms sale to the Saudis. Busy, for once I’d not been frantically checking nytimes.com all day, and I’d no idea what he was talking about. My answer was garbled. At a festival event in Manchester, another audience member asked me to comment on Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The winner had been announced that day, but on the train up I had actually been reading a book. That will teach me. On the spot, I blandly commended the choice as creative. Yet on reflection, I regard a folksinger’s being awarded the most prestigious prize in literature as ludicrous (“The times they are a-changin’!” would never sound like great poetry without a guitar). Experiences of being caught out unawares bolster my habit. See what happens when you avert your eyes from the BBC for an instant? So much for reading fiction on the train.
A completely fake justification for all this indiscriminate gobbling of incident – abundantly, the tragedies of strangers – is this notion that we’re all obliged to keep abreast of current events out of civic duty. For me in the UK, that rationale is farcical; I don’t hold a British passport, and can’t vote. In the US, a bare-bones lowdown suffices to make most electoral decisions. Republicans oppose abortion rights and resist the separation of church and state. Enough. I won’t vote for them. Arriving from Mars, I’d need only listen to Donald Trump for two minutes to ascertain that I didn’t want to vote for him, either. The same goes for Jeremy Corbyn (maybe a minute and a half). So I’m not spending hours per day on becoming a better-educated voter. Any fellow sufferer of the same enslavement – I am not alone here – who defends information overload as civic responsibility is a liar.
What’s wrong with news addiction?
Be they binges on news or food, most inputs enter an organism only to transit out. My recall of the news I guzzle is appallingly poor. Oh, I occasionally snatch a statistic and hold onto it, the way a single kernel of corn can catch in your intestines for months – especially if I repeat this souvenir factoid to others. By 2015, according to the IMF, non-financial public and private debt stood at $152 trillion, or 225% of worldwide GDP. I did not need to look that up, because I have trotted it out a dozen times. Or, a recent favourite: in the UK, the top 10% pay 90% of the taxes. So I’m relieved to have learned something from the newspaper semi-permanently. But otherwise, I sometimes discover that I’m watching a CBS News we’ve forgotten to delete, and I can get through ten minutes’ worth before realising I’ve already seen it. Show me a Daily Telegraph whose entirety I read five years ago, and I doubt I’d recognise a single article. I’d struggle to recapitulate the bullet points, much less the details, in most of the articles I read last week.
Ironically, following an ongoing story blow-by-blow can impede long-term retention of the big picture. I read all about the trial, but did the Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof get the death penalty in the end, or not? Ditto Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber: what was his sentence? Although I can remember his running over his brother, his bloody scrawls on that boat. Too many trees, not enough forest – which can be a problem with journalism across the board.
If I can’t remember most of this stuff, what’s it for?
Furthermore, little of the news I swill makes any serious impact on opinions I already hold. Like most people’s, my confirmation bias is thriving. I rarely scan for information that challenges what I think, much less contravenes it; I scrounge instead for scraps that back the case for pre-existing conditions. Sure, I read many opinion pieces with which I disagree and routinely submit to broadcaster biases I don’t share – the better to become energisingly disgusted. For me, television news programmes are sporting events, opportunities for a workout.
News may distort as much as it illuminates. Journalism elevates politics – in the narrow, most party-partisan sense – above all other fields of endeavour. But for Americans, is what’s going on in DC really the most important aspect of their lives? Is the happiness of the British public primarily determined by shenanigans in Westminster? By obsessing over who’s in and out of favour in the cabinet, or over the exact state of play regarding Congressional investigations of the Trump campaign and Russian hacking, the news media sideline developments in science, medicine, engineering, the arts … Everything else is sidelined, to the point where it becomes hard to remember that there is anything else. But most spats between elected officials and their jockeying for advantage will prove historically meaningless. Do we really care anymore about the rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, covered in minute, incremental detail in the British media for years?
If I can’t remember most of this stuff, what’s it for?
The media’s blinkered focus on party politics makes us dumber. All the time and energy we squander on transitory, trivial shifts in governmental power, strategy, and policy might be devoted to learning about other places and other spheres. When the US federal government puts a Gone Fishin’ sign on its door from lack of Congressional funding, for ordinary citizens nothing changes. If the federal government were as vital as its lavish coverage implies, regular life should come to a halt. Instead, hoi polloi pissiness during a government shutdown has centred solely on the closure of national parks.
Media fixation on politics also convinces the audience that they are cleaved into antagonistic, irreconcilable camps – thereby encouraging discord, enmity, and a limited, rather squalid sense of what constitutes an identity. Emphasis on party affiliation invokes a dismally reductive concept of “community” (a debased term I avoid). Lately in the West, factional animosity within countries often exceeds the animosity between countries, and the news media only makes internecine polarisation worse.
In privileging party politics, the news media may simply be lazy. Political stories are always at ready hand, since scads simply sail through the letterbox. Ever eager to promote their brand, politicians are easy to identify, to contact, to extract quotes from, and to convince to appear on late-night programmes. More difficult to locate, informed professionals in other fields are harder to persuade to leave the family dinner table and show up at 10pm for Newsnight (television news seldom even pays a contributor’s fee). Most practised politicians are comfortable on camera; experts within other purviews may know what they’re talking about, but they won’t as reliably perform well on TV.
The news industry’s cosy, mutually back-scratching relationship with government almost effortlessly fills airtime and column inches. But this symbiosis is not in the interests of the consumer. If nothing else, much political coverage is boring – which is why the news junkie is, quite sensibly, a minority crackpot.
Yet the biggest downside to news addiction is its opportunity costs. Imagine what I might accomplish with an extra 4.5 hours daily (remember, with those additional magazines and documentaries, that total can climb even higher). Fair enough, maybe that time would otherwise seep into sleeping too long, back-to-backing Judge Judy, and lying dully in wait for invading neighbourhood cats to scare them away from pooping in our garden. But were the ideas to keep flowing, I could also write twice as many novels (or, perversely, twice as much journalism). I could read many more books, including in-depth nonfiction that I might actually remember. I could tutor students in English at the school across the street. I could learn Spanish. I could go back to ceramic figure sculpture, and to drawing still lifes with coloured pencils. I could watch more great movies, listen to more music, and attend more exhibitions. I could finally get round to the second season of Follow the Money, languishing on our set-top box for months. Rather than slump before CBS News, I could idle to the patio and stargaze as I floss.
Why, by doubling my free time, I could contemplate my life, the people I love, the places to which I’ve travelled, and the mystery of existence all with a less fettered gaze, one not shuttered by obsession with the latest. Consider the very word “news” – which eliminates everything else that’s already happened.