Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Watching the News While Reading the Bible

Sam Bush / 3.30.21
“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” – Karl Barth

Jim Gaffigan doesn’t want to hear about your favorite show (which, by the way, is boring and inconsequential). But have you heard about his favorite show? It’s called the news. “The characters are so complex, the story lines are surprising and the acting is flawless. The heroes and the villains are replenished everyday. Every night is a cliffhanger!” he says. While he sometimes rationalizes why he watches it — it’s important to stay informed, it helps spread awareness — he’s really just there for the drama. “I almost expect every show to begin with, ‘Previously on the news!’

A professor of mine once said that the assassination of J.F.K. was the birthplace of our national news obsession. That’s when we first fixed our eyes on the television, hungry for the latest development. Today, almost sixty years later, our eyes have yet to be unglued. But have you read the news lately? It’s not very uplifting. Rarely will I watch or read the news and feel better off afterwards. The news seems to be designed to make us angry, to make us afraid, and/or to upset to our stomachs.

Case in point: David Leonhardt’s New York Times newsletter, “Bad-News Bias: Is Bad News the Only Kind?” which is a fascinating take on how the media has covered the pandemic. Last year, an economics professor noticed that Covid-19 television coverage was almost always negative. The theme was consistent across the aisle. Liberal and conservative channels alike would emphasize any increase in Covid cases and give less attention to wherever cases were dropping. Whereas international news provided much more of a mix of good and bad news (51%), U.S. media’s Covid coverage was predominantly bad news (81%). It’s not so much that American journalists weren’t telling the truth; they were crafting a narrative based on a certain side of truth.

What explains our taste for the negative? Are journalists simply set on giving people what they want for the sake of having a larger audience? Maybe, but Leonhardt doesn’t think so. He makes a compelling point that journalists aren’t solely motivated by clicks and views, but by a greater sense of purpose:

In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it. Sometimes, though, our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling something less than the complete story.

He has a point. People have a tendency to project a false image in order to hide the truth about themselves. In that sense, the journalist can be a kind of modern prophet, speaking truth to power and uncovering that which is hidden. But Leonhardt’s admission that reflexive cynicism can be just as damaging as naïveté is refreshing. Yes, human interest stories pale in comparison to actual tragedy, but the world does not consist only of either extreme. For most of last year, my Facebook feed was either videos of animals being rescued by good Samaritan types or articles about the rising number of Covid related deaths. Isn’t there more to the story than these two?

I get the feeling that it’s not so much information that we are obsessed with, but a false sense of grief. When it comes to tearing us away from our mundane lives, pain can be a stronger drug than pleasure. But the pain that comes from watching the news is experienced by proxy. The news allows us to be in touch with the deeper realities of life without actually having to engage in the world. We can extract meaning from other people’s suffering while remaining comfortably in the spectator seat. While many of us have watched the pandemic unfold from the cheap seats, I doubt that people who have actually experienced the death of a loved one are glued to the news in the same way.

All of this reminds me of Francis Spufford’s brilliant description of hearing Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto” in his modern classic Unapologetic. He’s sitting in a cafe on a gloomy morning after a rough night of marital strife when he first hears the music. Just as he is consumed with the darkness of his present situation, a soft light begins to break on the horizon:

It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this, as well.

Jesus, of course, does not turn a blind eye to our sorrows, nor does he attempt to distract us from the truth with human interest stories. The good news does not contradict the bad news of the world by any means (the bad news, after all, is true). It’s just that there is more to the story. The kind of real, unsentimental hope that we all long for hinges upon that “And yet” between the good and the bad news of our lives. The Gospel is the kind of news that actually touches deeper realities of life and does not make the viewer a bystander. On the contrary, it allows us to care for others — not as informed, dutiful citizens, but as those who love because God first loved us. Having our feet on the ground with our eyes on the eternal can allow us to engage deeply in civic life without putting all our eggs in the temporal basket.

There is a difference between the old age and the new creation. What you can see and feel is in the presence of the old age. But the nature of faith is not something that is obvious. It can be perceived only by hearing and by believing, not by touching. The old age is that which we read about in the newspaper. The new creation is that which is continually proclaimed by the Word of God. Of course, you and I live in the in-between. Even as the bad news blares from every television, radio, and iPhone, the Gospel whispers that there is more to the story. As Walker Percy once said, a human being is a person who is waiting for news. Thanks be to God who brings tidings of comfort and joy to all.