Is Less News Good News?

10/11/2010 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I sit in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem near two diplomats discussing the current round of peace talks. My first thought is this is an amazing experience -- these older white men of indeterminate European descent are discussing the U.N., the Security Council, Abbas, Hilary Clinton and the decisions and negotiations that ripple out all over the world. My second thought, one that follows one nanosecond later is, wow if there is a good place for a bomb to go off, it would be right here, right now.

Haven't I read in the paper before about bombs going off in stately hotel lobbies, of diplomats (and their wives) killed? Of plaster raining down and flesh clinging to chandeliers? What would the second before it happened be like? My heart races as I look at the cast of characters in the lobby. Those speaking English, those speaking Hebrew, or Arabic or German. Husbands, wives, sisters, daughters. Will it happen? Will it happen now? How about now?

The following day I sat at a bus stop in Rehavya and watched the traffic going by. A car backfired. I almost had a heart attack. No, really, my heart clenched in momentary fear. After I recovered, I congratulated myself for having taken in too much news, just before leaving the U.S.; the latest round of peace talks in Israel and of the imminence of the Palestinians walking away and of more families evicted in Sheik Jarrah (insert a picture of something burning here).

Only a few weeks ago, I picked up a news magazine idly, at the doctor's office. I read that the world's honey bee population is endangered and therefore crop pollination and food supplies will start to fail. I flipped the page to read that global warming is threatening vineyards all over the world; soon, wine growing will be almost impossible. Another column informs me that malaria is the number one killer in the world and that simple prevention steps would help, but that poverty, illiteracy and corruption block the way. I put the magazine down. On the back cover, a hungry looking Indian child with a cleft palate urges me with pleading eyes to please make a donation so she can live a productive life.

The local evening news tells me of carjackings and shootings in my hometown of Los Angeles. It tells me of murder suicides, recovered body parts and dog fighting rings. Later, just as the newscast wraps up, the station very sweetly offers a 30-second story about an old woman who saved up enough recycled glass bottles to buy herself a new car. But coming up on the news at 11? A rehash of the wrenching stories already aired. Plus, updates on the Middle East peace talks (insert a picture of something burning here).

That we live in a culture of fear and are fed a steady diet of bad news is not a new, nor a revelatory, observation. It's been happening for some time. I seem to recall vivid newscasts of the various offenses in the Vietnam war, of civil rights demonstrations and of rocket propelled grenades in some "stan" somewhere. It has been ever thus that bad news sells and good news bores.

But I have had enough. You are what you eat. Are you also what you think about most? What hope do we have of building a better world when all we do is pay attention to what isn't working? Ellen DeGeneres taped a public awareness spot about the terrible suicide of a bullied teenager. The spot swept Facebook and other social networks with lamentations and outcry. Bullying is worse than ever! Gay people and especially teens are targets! A day or two later, I saw a Facebook post about a news piece on an anti-bullying teen program that is working, with examples and case studies. Nobody commented.

When I step off of our bonny U.S. shores to travel and teach, I find that I usually wind up off the 24-hour news cycle for days if not two weeks or more. And I find, during that time, that my anxiety levels go way, way down. No news is good news is ignorant bliss is more hope, more optimism and a steadier pulse.

But there are two sides to every story. Do we owe it to ourselves to watch the news? Even if it's unpleasant?

One of my favorite movies is "Cabaret." I love the Fosse, the Minelli, the Joel Grey-ness of it all. I also love the dread that the movie serves up, as soldiers with swastikas walk by casually in the background. We know the horror that is coming, we know because we've seen the outcome, but these movie people -- they don't see it! They should get out! They have no idea of the hellish nightmare that is about to visit Europe and the world! No, they are too busy in the cabaret, a metaphor for life, to see the shadow falling across the land.

I had a conversation with an Arab friend here in Jerusalem, about what Israelis call "ha matsav" -- the situation. He insisted that he is not interested in the situation, in politics or in peace talks. I only want to live my life in peace, he said. But Amir, I pushed, if you don't know what is happening, if you are not aware and informed, things could escalate, more violence, more civil rights abuses, more factionalism and you would be a party to it by dint of ignoring it. Amir shrugged. I cannot control it.

It didn't sit well with me. Clearly, burying your head in the sand is not a sustainable way of being a human on this ever-shrinking planet. We must be informed. If we do not pay attention to unsavory problems like sex slavery in Romania or bride burning in India, how can we possibly affect change? We owe it to ourselves and to each other to pay attention to social, political and economic events in this world.

Think globally, act locally, they say. Change begins at home. It is not counterintuitive to set media consumption boundaries and to skip sensationalism, celebrity worship and fear mongering. If the news of the day makes me paranoid, anxious and frightened, I am paralyzed with fear and distrust. Rather than embracing the world, I shrink away from it and lock my doors. Rather than thinking of actionable solutions for my involvement, I cloister myself at home on a steady media diet of more fear and loathing.

On the upside, I am fascinated by flash mobs. My all time favorite is the Do-Re-Mi song in the central Belgian train station. I challenge you to watch without breaking into a grin. It is interesting to watch the faces of those who observe; many onlookers seem downright uncomfortable. What is the meaning of this? How does one categorize an outbreak of song and dance with no other agenda than to express joy? How does it fit in this increasingly paranoid world where we have become accustomed to seeing soldiers with automatic weapons at train stations?

Flash mobs and other, less organized, more organic good news need to be magnified and rebroadcast. Because for every sensational, awful thing that happens, 10 good things happen that by comparison are not deemed "newsworthy." Community centers are opened, foster children are loved, stray animals are saved, healthy babies are born, Arabs play backgammon with their Jewish friends, Americans support a mosque or a gay center or a teen outreach program, French people demonstrate against the ban of Muslim women wearing hijabs.

I am not advocating eschewing the news of the day, nor necessarily that anyone reading this should join or start a flash mob (although, I'll tell you from experience, it'll make you crazy-happy for some time after). No, rather, I advocate being a more careful consumer of news full stop. First, ask yourself if the news segment or article is something actionable for you. Can you get involved to improve the situation? How about becoming a beekeeper? Be more observant of the way in which news is served up. What is the slant on it? I like to get my news from a number of sources: The New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, the BBC, the LA Times and increasingly, Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" -- where news is served up with an ironic laugh. And we all know laughter is the truest truth there is. I want many points of view and I want to gather some semblance of fact. I'm not naïve; I know that every news organization has an agenda and a slant, but if I peruse a few sources, I'm more likely to get a filament of straight reportage.

The line between information and entertainment has been profoundly blurred and I don't reckon that's going to roll back anytime soon. "The Daily Show." It's all in the name. It's a show. For your entertainment. But at least Stewart makes no bones about it.

So how on earth do you tell the difference between entertainment, infotainment, journalism and sensationalism? How can you tell if you're being exposed to propaganda, not news?

The only way I can tell is by asking myself, how did the news segment or article I just read make me feel? Frightened? Disgusted? Enlightened? Curious? Proactive? Angry? Despairing? And then I ask myself: is this an actionable piece of information? Do I need to lock my doors or take my car back to the factory or buy less ice cream? What can I or should I do about what I just heard? The sickening news of an animal being tossed from a freeway car or a brutal rape and murder does nothing but frighten me and make me feel helpless. And it's not news.

I don't advocate a Brave New World scenario in which we only report what's pleasing, or a 1984 world in which we continually shift what is true. I do think we need to be informed. But we need to learn to be much more discerning about which news we read or watch and how much.

The Octo-mom has no meaning in my world. Nor does the double murder suicide of a family in East LA or the countless reality shows -- a horrible bastardization of sensationalism and reality that surely heralds the end times and passes for entertainment in a world resigned to indiscriminate information overload.

But I am interested in learning about beekeeping and I do volunteer for the Afghan Women's Writing Project. Because those are things I can do and explore that will make a positive impact. Maybe not a very interesting one -- although I do project that my beehives will garner much attention from my neighbors and probably my dermatologist.

The question isn't whether no news is good news but rather, what news is news and how much of it is really good for us? And the question is: How would you like to feel about our world? Would you like to live a life of quiet desperation in an increasingly terrifying global village that is warming and murdering and fighting? Or would you like to live a life of fullness and appreciation for the small acts of kindness and the changes we can make? Here's the great part -- you get to choose because ain't nobody holding a gun to your head forcing you to watch endless loops of "CNN." Or, at least I hope no one is. If they were, you'd surely wind up on the evening news.