Journalism and the vice of curiosity

Heretofore, my criticisms of journalism have concerned its global effects. To summarize (see, e.g. here and here)

  • 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.

11 thoughts on “Journalism and the vice of curiosity

  1. Thanks for the nice insight on the vice of curiosity. I had always seen it as wasting time with frivolous pursuit of irrelevant knowledge, but I suppose making irrelevant knowledge seem like profound insight only serves to reinforce that temptation too.

    It seems to me like there’s a continuum between popular science (and analogous genres for other disciplines) and news, however, and the former clearly provides a helpful service that is less likely to lead to misunderstanding. For example, I find outfits like Quanta Magazine helpful for digesting new results when I don’t have the time to read the primary sources myself. Where do we draw the line between popularising a discipline and misrepresenting it?

    • I like Quanta Magazine myself, though even there one can see that their style of reporting works better for some topics than others. There were a couple of articles in the past month on problems in the mathematical foundations of quantum field theory that I couldn’t make any sense of, presumably because they’re constrained not to show any math. Their article from a little while ago on the heating of Jupiter and Saturn’s atmospheres is an example of an accessible article that turned out very well. I think it’s only general relativity and quantum field theory that prompt bad metaphors from reporters, and I find myself guessing what they’re really talking about.

  2. I still read the news, although I no longer do this with the smug self-satisfaction that I used to feel when I was wasting time behind a newspaper. Perhaps this is partly because a man can read a newspaper with his nose in the air, whereas we must now hunch over our laptops. But, as you say, I am also aware that the news I read is a concoction of fatuities and falsehoods, and that the trivial duties of citizenship do not require me to follow Bolivian politics or the earthquake in Madagascar. To make matters worse, I have now reached an age when most journalists look like callow whelps or greasy grifters. My son’s girlfriend plans to study journalism, and I have tried to make her look down on news and aspire to write articles on food or lifestyle.

    • I used to take some satisfaction in keeping up with the beliefs of my enemies–shows how intelligent and broad-minded I am, and so forth. Now I avoid them to the extent possible. I still see value in having my beliefs challenged, but I see no value in having them and their holders insulted.

      Knowing about the escalating attacks on my people has a paralyzing effect on me. I will be better able to prepare if I don’t keep appraised of it. I think I will soon have to cut out even friendly websites, because they mostly just discuss outrageous things our enemies have been doing or saying, meaning even limiting oneself to conservative websites still gets the New York Times (rather, the most upsetting parts of it) secondhand.

      • I think I will soon have to cut out even friendly websites, because they mostly just discuss outrageous things our enemies have been doing or saying, meaning even limiting oneself to conservative websites still gets the New York Times (rather, the most upsetting parts of it) secondhand.
        Ha. That’s pretty much exactly what Steve Sailer’s website is.

  3. Great post, Bonald.

    I put news under the category of novelty, for as its name tells us, the news is all about novelties; and most innovations are lethal, or at least destructive.

    When my son was in the hospital at death’s door, and my wife and I were with him traversing the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I found I could not bear to hear or read the news, no not one bit. Nor could I bear to hear or see advertisements, or any music written after about 1800. I just *could not bear them.* The discomfort was visceral.

    There is a reason for the deep silence of monasteries. Noise is devilry.

  4. Nice post, Bonald.

    Your point about wanting to attain knowledge without putting in the effort to understand the subject suggests a parallel with drug-induced euphoria, where one aims to experience pleasure or joy without engaging in the proper sort of activity that might naturally lead to joy. In both cases, one is trying to short-circuit the normal processes and attain the desired goal without putting in the hard work and discipline needed to achieve it properly.

    Unrelated thought: A lot of media consumption occurs not with the goal of ‘being informed’ so much as with the goal of knowing which opinions I should hold in order properly to signal which team I am on. (The question of the policeman’s innocence or guilt in the George Floyd case struck me that way: there’s something more than a tad absurd about modern mass media society where every man feels compelled to have an opinion about some local police blotter item that happened thousands of miles away and which concerns details the interpreting of which requires expertise he lacks, and where this opinion is based solely on newspaper accounts. And the reason he finds it important to have such an opinion is not on account of the truth of the matter, but because it signals whose team he is on.)

  5. Good article, good discussion.

    America is a revolutionary society. (It was your writing that most helped me see this, Bonald.) In a revolutionary society all leaders are afraid of other leaders because an excess or deficiency of zeal, or a minor deviation of doctrine, leads to exile or a bullet. Think USSR.

    So American journalists, like all Revolutionary leaders, are fearful, bullying conformists. At least those who are loyal to the Revolution. Who would trust fearful, bullying conformists to deliver a wholesome (or even acceptable) product?

  6. Hi Bonald, I think this recent event is quite relevant:
    https://www.pillarcatholic.com/p/pillar-investigates-usccb-gen-sec
    In sum, a Catholic news outfit used publicly available location data to identify a high-ranking priest in the USCCB as engaging in unsavoury (though not illegal) activity. This is a pretty concrete example of “our side” using the weapons of newspapers against churchmen who very likely are compromised (he was in charge of abuse investigations, for example). Also, it’s rather ironic that your proposal for priests to wear bodycams seems to have been inadvertently implemented simply by the proliferation of the Internet. What are your thoughts?

  7. 1) Surveillance of priests is only useful if it can be used to establish that they didn’t do something, not just raise suspicions that they might have done something.
    2) I disapprove of our side publishing damaging accusations against clergymen. What does it matter if some USCCB bureaucrat is a sodomite?

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