Why reading depressing news stories feels so addictive.
I keep thinking that there must be different news somewhere. It’s one reason I keep compulsively clicking through the same sites over and over, like channel surfing: this tip-of-the-tongue feeling that there’s some major news source I’m forgetting about, reporting on an adjacent reality. Even good old earthquakes, wildfires, and boat capsizings feel simple and wholesome now — innocent, accidental tragedies instead of officially mandated ones. Anything but this same slow, inexorable drive toward autocracy, barbarism, and extinction, each day’s headline falling like another blow from the truncheon.
There’s a spectrum of possible responses to this onslaught, ranging from addictive immersion to total isolation. I know a married couple experiencing some friction because one of them pursues the former policy while the other is attempting to institute the latter. Some of my friends wisely decided after the election to devote themselves to a single issue, so as not to fracture their attention and deplete their energies — a policy that proves hard to implement when you’re trying to dedicate yourself exclusively to, say, climate change, and then the government starts locking children in cages seemingly for sheer, sadistic fun.
I am perhaps the person least qualified to offer useful advice on handling this overload sanely. I tend to vacillate uselessly between extremes, ignoring reality as much as I can bear, clicking only on articles sure to pointlessly enrage me. I read the news the same way I recently watched a TV show about dermatological surgery: rapt with revulsion, face half-averted, squinting helplessly at the moist plops and glistening excisions through the chinks in my fingers.
Whenever I’ve gone a week without news, I’ve been chastened, and kind of heartened, to realize how little difference my ignorance has made to the world. But this is obviously not a tenable solution: It’s like zonking yourself out on morphine while the cancer painlessly devours you.
It doesn’t help that a lot of what passes for news falls under the category of Shit Donald Trump Said Today. Reporters and pundits who try to infer a coherent strategy, platform, or policy from his passing spats and tantrums remind me of a circle of middle school girls Talmudically parsing a text sent by a 13-year-old boy.
Unfortunately, the news behind the news — everything that Trump’s antics and scandals distract us from — is even more horrific and demoralizing. It’s easier to get all riled up about the president’s latest unconstitutional ad lib than it is to think about the irrevocable decline of your country, the growing abyss between rich and poor, the world’s slow tilt toward tyranny, or the terminal prognosis of global warming, the same way that it’s a lot more fun to watch Nightmare on Elm Street than Shoah.
Google “happy news,” though, and you’ll find several sites that specialize in human interest stories of generosity and kindness: Gal Gadot in Amazonian garb visiting sick children, a teacher in India driving kids to school and home every day. It’s a distinctly conservative utopia — all individual acts of charity, no systemic improvements.
We get a hundred “hot takes” a day in reaction to every development, but few cooler ones. Reading historians like Thucydides, Gibbon, or Caro provides tonic reminders that tribal hysteria is an ancient and predictable disease, that once-respectable republics have sold out before, that the resistance to basic human decency in this country has always been fierce and self-righteous. The lesson is neither “things were ever thus” nor “the end is nigh,” but that our current dystopian horror, all but incomprehensible in the chaos of the moment, is at least precedented and intelligible.
But the question, ultimately, is what good being informed does you — or, more to the point, what good it does anyone else. Why ingest all this toxic information if you’re just going to excrete it as opinion? If you’re just getting addictive little hits of outrage and vindication, reinforcing the same crude, useless narrative — assholes at it again — is really no different from the righteous loathing that screenwriters easily elicit by having bullies kick the nerdy hero’s books into the mud, or having leering hillbillies harass a vacationing family. It all reinforces a worldview that’s corrosive to the soul: that the American electorate can’t be trusted to name a hamster, that democracy is a failed experiment, and that human beings are ineducably stupid and doomed.
“I could stand all of this,” a friend told me, “if I just knew it were going to end.” Maybe this is why the bad news is so addictive: We enjoy those cruel humiliations in movies because they sharpen our appetites for the righteous Act III ass-kicking to come, when the bullying jocks are humiliated and our nerdy hero prevails.
We all know how this story’s supposed to end: Nixon resigns in disgrace; McCarthy is denounced as a sniveling drunk; Hitler blows his brains out in the shambles of his capitol. Which is why people are following the excruciatingly plodding, methodical Mueller investigation the same way they wait for Bruce Banner to finally turn into the freaking Hulk, and smash.
And so I keep clicking, waiting for some breaking news from that other, truer universe: Trump frog-marched out of the White House by the Justice Department, or a catastrophe of such enormity that even our government will be forced to acknowledge that climate change is a thing, or maybe a deus ex machina message from space.
But history doesn’t follow any dramaturgical formulas. Its arc may ultimately bend toward justice, but even Dr. King leaned on it a little to help it along. I keep coming back to the unwelcome, do-your-homework realization that if we really want different news, we’re going to have to make it.
Tim Kreider is the author of the essay collections We Learn Nothing and I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, as well as the cartoon collections The Pain — When Will It End?, Why Do They Kill Me?, and Twilight of the Assholes. He lives in New York City and an undisclosed location on the Chesapeake Bay.