Old news

“Old news,” they say scornfully, as if the apparent oxymoron speaks for itself. But as far as I’m concerned, old news is the best kind. And no, I’m not talking about literature, which Ezra Pound famously defined as “news that stays news.” I mean honest-to-god, newspaper news. I only read one daily newspaper with any regularity, the Christian Science Monitor, and I read it two to four weeks late. Granted, that’s because I have to wait for both my parents to read it and pass it on, and they only pick up their mail once or twice a week. But I’ve come to appreciate the many subtle, often bittersweet flavors of a well-aged news story.

For example, at breakfast this morning I read a carefully researched piece from September 21 about the role of racism in criminal sentencing and whether or not racism is in decline in America, which, though written in response to the “Jena 6” march and demonstrations, had an additional resonance for me because of the ugly racist incident at Columbia University that I had just seen a mention of online. Then at lunch I read all about the Burmese monks, how they were taking to the streets in protest for the third day in a row. It was the kind of cautiously optimistic international coverage at which the Monitor has always excelled, and my knowledge of what would happen next gave the story a depth and pathos which I’m sure I never would’ve felt had I read it on the day it was published.

Imagine if you could go back in time, knowing how things will turn out, but remaining powerless to change them: that’s what reading old news is like. One gets to smile indulgently at the hot issues of the day — and then turn the page. Because, let’s face it, a lot of old news is pretty out-dated, superseded by more recent developments, and that’s one of the main benefits of reading the newspaper two to four weeks late: it saves a lot of time. Time better spent reading, well, literature.

I suppose it’s not a healthy approach, and I’m quite sure it isn’t a very responsible one. How can I be a good and productive citizen if I don’t follow the news more closely, especially as the presidential election season closes in on its final year? Can I really in good conscience sign all those online petitions and send all those emails to our public servants without a strong grasp of the issues at hand? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this: I sleep pretty well. Instead of pointless agitation and dread, I am plagued only by sadness and resignation, which rarely interfere with a good night’s sleep.

13 Replies to “Old news”

  1. I’ve often thought that would be a great idea (since long before the internet) for compulsive daily newspaper readers. Put it aside for a week, and most of it will be rendered pointless, wrong or hopelessly out of date. And like you said, you would gain some perspective on just how ephemeral the “news” is. I think it is both a healthy and a responsible approach. Very responsible, you are probably able to see the issues much more clearly than most using this method. A more dispassionate view. It’s very difficult these days to avoid the news, so a paper might be rendered obsolete in just a day or two. I blame NPR and the internet.
    I wish you continued health and responsibilty, and the sadness and resignation that come with seeing the human condition clearly. rb

  2. Sigh. Yes. I am so glad I am no longer a journalist. I tend not to read, listen to or watch any news at all apart from occasional headlines and other stuff people bring to my attention. I too sleep and indeed function much better in the world as a result. There is still a resitual worry that it is irresponsible. However when I watch people compulsively consuming the “latest”, “first” gobbets of “news” I am not aware of witnessing any more responsible behaviour on their part as a result of this intravenous intake.

  3. Any news that matters is still current weeks or even months later. Your approach steers you away from the false erotics of every daily rise and fall, and into the slower but stronger current of real history.

  4. Yeah, I gave up on most newspapers years ago. If something’s important, at least one of the blogs I follow, or a RL friend, will mention it, and then I can look up the stories on the Web. Not to mention that these days, the papers are dominated by disinformation and propaganda! (Yes, they want you to be scared.)

  5. I used to get the Guardian Weekly for this very reason; it’s a healthier approach, not one I follow now (I get most news online). Good for you, Dave.

  6. IMHO you are better informed reading old news than a majority of Americans. Most of the kids I work with are only concerned with the tabloids and gossip columns. And I know many of them vote. So, who is a better parent, Kevin or Brittney? I need to know.

    And I hope you have to look that story up Dave?

    How I envy you some days.

  7. I’ve had a post on the back burner for years (never posted because it has an obstinately snobby tone) about “how to be well-read,” its second piece of advice is to consume no daily journalism. (The first piece, of course, is to watch no television.) Events of today or yesterday are almost never well understood, & certainly not by people who have a gift for improvising stories under time-pressure. That facility in taking brand-new facts and making them fit into familiar narratives is more a curse than a blessing, I think.

  8. Thanks for all the thoughtful reactions, y’all. I’m glad to find myself in such good company.

    arby – Thanks for stopping by. I’m not sure that dispassionate is necessarily better, though — some things it’s good to get impassioned about. And I still do, I guess, though perhaps with less intensity than I used to.

    rr – Yes, and I think it was the memory of a particularly pungent screed of yours against our obsession with instantaneousness that emboldened me to write this post.

    Jarrett – I love your phrase, “the false erotics of every daily rise and fall”! Damn.

    Bill – If you must.

    David – Yes, but I don’t see how it could be otherwise. All journalism is advocacy journalism of a sort, even if the causes are not expressly articulated. The ideology of growth, for example, is nearly all-pervasive, even in the most apparently unbiased media. One has to read any news source critically.

    Pica – Well, I probably would read more news online, but the paper is there and convenient. I don’t have a laptop to bring to the table with me when I eat.

    Keith – I am aware that Brittney is in some sort of custody battle, though I couldn’t have told you her ex’s name. Hope that isn’t too disillusioning.

    Sometimes the fluff stories are fun, though. I really got a kick out of the Joe Paterno road rage story when my dad told me about it last night.

    dale – I never know whether to be afraid or to be reassured when you and I are on the same page! The risk of contamination from those “familiar narratives” is precisely why I can’t handle much if any news first thing in the morning, when I’m trying to germinate something creative.

  9. I think our brains are not hardwired to process news as it comes. Our reflexes just aren’t fast enough to evaluate the information. Perhaps a fly or a hummingbird might do a lot better with new news.

    Strangely I feel similarly about blogs. Once I started slowing down with them and not spending all my time reading them or writing in mine every day, I began to appreciate the more thoughtful writing, words that still remain with me even after a lot of time has passed. After all, like you do every day, it is the real-time appreciation of the world that I am after, not the writing and reading about it. If you don’t actually live what you profess to be writing for, then what is the point of writing?

  10. True. I have slowed down on the blogging, but in part I think that’s simply because I’m getting tired of my own words. I do still enjoy reading other people’s blogs, and I think the key is to pick and choose the posts one wants to read, and not end up skimming everything out of some warped sense of duty.

  11. You sound like Thoreau here. I’m sure you know what he says about people senselessly running after news and how we encounter one another too often for genuine encounters.

    (As for the other item, I will write you on Tuesday!)

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