- By controlling the public’s perceptions of the wider world, the mass media constitutes an unaccountable ideological tyranny. The incentive structure of democracy makes the consolidation of an information monopoly almost inevitable.
- Its scandalmongering and hit pieces against nonconforming groups undermines competing, traditional authorities and demoralize their leadership, producing a social desert of atomized individuals, suspicious of all their neighbors, cut off from God and their ancestors, utterly helpless before the media’s mind-control machine.
Nevertheless, some will object that the public’s desire for the sort of knowledge provided by the press is, in itself, morally neutral or even positive, so some way should be found to provide it. Many thinking thus proceed to seek the chimera of a not-evil, not-anti-Christian press. Is there a way to understand the evil of journalism at the personal level, how consumption of news is bad for the viewer?
Well, obviously consuming Satanic propaganda is bad for your soul. However, what shall we say to people who don’t recognize news as propaganda, or think that they are immune to propaganda, or think that the information gain outweighs the spiritual damage?
Knowledge is good, but in certain cases its pursuit can be accidentally bad, as Thomas Aquinas explains in describing the vice of curiosity.
Following his examples, one may pursue knowledge for a sinful end, such as to gratify one’s own pride or to detract or look down upon one’s neighbors. The 21st century is in some ways much more like Jesus’ time than Saint Thomas’; ours is a pharisaical age, one in which men desperately seek a reputation for virtue by affecting outrage at the shortcomings of others. You will recall that Our Lord had very strong words regarding this behavior, which I would call one of the characteristic traits of journalists. A virtuous man does not even want to know about the faults of his fellow men, except for those few whom he is in a situation to personally help. Much news today is in the mode of moral condemnation, in which readers indulge the sinful pleasure of joining a moral mob and enjoying the sense of their own righteousness. Even the best-case scenario, of newspapermen impartially investigating public officials and exposing their corruption, may well do more harm than good.
(In actual fact, we know the press uses accusations of moral fault and the threat thereof as weapons to terrorize government officials and the public into obedience. American conservatives often complain that the press is on the Democrats’ side, but the truth is closer to the reverse. Journalists are self-directed ideological zealots who exert more comprehensive control of the Democratic than the Republican party. Democratic politicians live in fear of the press, just like Republican politicians. Democratic politicians are usually practical men who on their own would acknowledge that for the sake of living together life must not be made too intolerable for their defeated opponents, except that if they did so, the journalists would accuse them of impurity and destroy them.)
Saint Thomas also claims that it is wrong to seek the truth beyond one’s own mental capacities. This might seem an odd restriction. How can I know what is beyond me until I’ve tried but failed to comprehend it, and where is the moral harm in having made the attempt? Thomas points out that such a person will usually get it wrong, meaning he will be an easy prey for journalistic manipulation. There is also a deeper point. A person’s mental abilities, while fixed in some ways (adult IQ doesn’t usually change much), are extensible in others. By study and practice, we can discipline our minds to conform to a new and challenging body of knowledge. Suppose I refuse to do this, but demand to know about a subject without conforming my mind to the relevant discipline. I am demanding to understand without understanding; I am demanding to misunderstand. Rather than apprehending the true intelligibility of the object, I cover it under a false and irrelevant intelligibility. In its relatively innocuous form, this could be readers imbibing bad analogies to understand modern physics (e.g. the dreadful turns of phrase indicating that spacetime is made of some sort of “fabric”) that leave readers understanding physics more poorly than before. More commonly, and more seriously, there is the reduction of serious disciplines to politics and gossip, as when the Western intellectual tradition is reduced to accusations that various philosophers were racist, and readers can feel superior to, say, Aristotle and Locke without ever engaging with the philosophical problems with which they dealt. This is how journalism will tend to engage a subject like philosophy, not (only) because journalists are stupid and bigoted, but because only accusation-style treatments of this sort fit the format of news. Journalism tends to reduce any subject to “hunt down and destroy evildoers!”, and this is a mental mode we should all avoid as much as possible.
Reading the news is bad for people, both collectively and individually.