Media Malady

Last Friday, I had the occasion to spend some time with the Dayan I regularly consult. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned the terror attacks that had occurred in Boston.

He looked at me quizzically.

“What happened in Boston?” he asked.

I soon realized that not only was he unaware that one of the two terrorists had been killed the previous night (a fact I had just learned from a fellow mispallel a little earlier that morning), but he did not know that there had been a bombing in the first place.

“There are some individuals who have a need to know the news,” the Dayan told me. “I am not one of them.”

He went on to tell me that he felt that the urge to continuously be abreast of the latest news isn’t only a dreadful waste of time, it is also destructive.

“Most of the news is negative by nature,” the Dayan told me. “Those who are constantly following it on their handhelds or computers fill their lives with unnecessary tension and worry. The same applies to the ‘news hotlines’ that so many people call every few minutes all day,” he added.

The Dayan was, of course, referring to members of our community and the effect a news addiction has on one’s avodas Hashem. But after our conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the 24-hour cycle is a positive force even in the secular community.

Do we really need to know every minor development and be reminded of the leading headlines every waking moment? Some may find the mere idea outrageous, but imagine what would have been had this dramatic story been covered only once a day in a daily newspaper, with perhaps a second “Extra — Late Edition” published when the story originally broke or something really dramatic took place?

Instead of being bombarded with the constant regurgitation of old news mixed with an extra-large dosage of rumors, speculation and innuendo, people would have been able to distract themselves a bit and focus on their day-to-day lives. They would have also been spared the numerous false reports caused by the urgent rush to get the news out immediately, at all costs.

On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, CNN and Fox News reported that a suspect in Monday’s bombing had been arrested. The Associated Press and The Boston Globe said a suspect had been taken into custody.

Though I first learned about these reports the following day, it turned out I didn’t miss anything. For within an hour of the reports being released, the FBI denied that a suspect had been captured, leading the news organizations that had reported the arrest to back down from those claims.

The pressure created by the 24-hour news cycle has a corrosive effect on print media outlets, pushing them to turn a blind eye to accuracy in pursuit of a potential scoop.

As indicated in the coverage in Monday’s edition of Hamodia, one New York City tabloid published on its front page a photo of two men near the Boston Marathon finish line, one wearing a backpack and one with a duffel bag slung at his side.

“Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon,” read the giant subhead. It turned out that the two had nothing to do with the bombing, yet their reputations were unfairly and perhaps permanently besmirched by reckless yellow journalism. It is striking that one of the   primary reasons that law enforcement officials decided to release the photos of the suspects was because they were worried that the news outlets would put out the Tsarnaevs’ images first, which might have made them the object of a wave of popular sympathy for wrongly suspected people. Instead of being an aid to authorities, the media forced their hand.

The media does have an important role at a time of disaster, to calm the public and help begin a healing process — which is the precise opposite of the approach the mainstream media outlets have adopted.

The 24-hour news cycle is something we will likely suffer until the coming of Moshiach — may it be speedily in our day. At the very least, let us recognize it for what it is and try our best to break loose of this destructive addiction.