I vaguely remember learning a kids’ song decades ago with the lyrics “garbage in, garbage out/that is what it’s all about …” That song was the first exposure I remember to Paul’s idea of “renewing your mind,” but the concept would show up dozens of times the following years, especially during youth group talks about throwing out your secular CDs.
The Bible makes a big deal about the mind. We’re told to take every thought captive, to have the mind of Christ, and in Romans 12 we’re instructed not conform to the world but let our minds be renewed by focusing on “things above.” Science agrees. The principle behind cognitive therapy is that if we change the way we think, we change the way we feel, which changes the way we act. Turns out the Bible, once again, was right: what we let in our minds is one of the most important choices we make.
I thought of this while reading an article from the American Psychological Association that says, in effect, that consuming too much news is making humanity miserable. According to the study, 95 percent of Americans keep up with the news, 72 percent of people believe the news blows things out of proportion, and 56 percent of people say watching the news causes them stress. In other words, people know what they’re consuming is probably distorted, but they watch it anyway, and they’re emotionally melting down inside from it.
Most recently this can be seen in the Parkland, Florida school shooting, and the completely predictable backlash, and backlash to the backlash, that came after. One side said “no more guns!” then the other side said “stop politicizing it” and then the other side said “when are we supposed to talk about it when it happens every week?!” and then … well, you’ve seen this play out on Facebook. I’m convinced much of this polarization stems directly from fears, some legitimate, many not, that come not just from seeing footage of the shootings (though that could be damaging in its own right), but from then watching talking heads scream at each other for hours after.
A few years ago I came to a controversial conclusion: Too much cable news is far more destructive to a Christ-centric view of the world than the Green Day album I owned in 10th grade. I have largely cut television news out of my life completely, and the few times I break that rule I regret it. That’s not to say that other news mediums are perfect by any means, but I believe there are three big reasons that cable news presents a direct assault on a Biblical way of thinking.
Cable News Wants You to Gawk, Not Grieve
It is biblical and productive to let our hearts be moved with grief at suffering in the world. Throughout the Bible we see multiple instances of followers of God grieving, most powerfully with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. But there’s a difference between grieving and gawking. Grieving is a healthy path of feeling, processing, and then responding with compassion or (in some cases) righteous anger. But that’s not what cable news wants you to do—their revenue comes from getting people to watch as long as possible, which is why that same video footage will play a dozen times in an hour, and then a news anchor will self-importantly bellow his or her opinion, and then bring on other people for their opinion, and then they’ll all watch the footage again.
Cable news treats tragedy like that driver on the highway that slows way down to look at the car wreck. It encourages a wallowing in the misery, or some voyeuristic impulse to see something shocking. And it never leads to action, it just leads to an impotent anger or fear that the viewer is left to sit in.
Cable News Wants You to Be Afraid
Several years ago while interning for a conservative, Christian political group I discovered that donations to the group went way down under a conservative president. The more I observed, the more I realized a primary way that organization tried to up giving was by convincing people that while the “good guy” was president there still existed reasons to be scared.
Cable news knows this method well. Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC are all fully aware of who their audience is, and they know the most effective way to make that audience loyal is to depict someone as being “the enemy” and then explain why that enemy is trying to destroy your way of life. In other words, be afraid … and coincidentally, keep watching that network so when that enemy tries to get you again, you’ll know about it.