Daniel Catalaa

News Fasting

(Article by Daniel Catalaa, published Apr 22nd, 2010)
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There are two main avenues for growth. The first is introspection and the second is by connecting with others. The second, external, pathway is one that we explore every day when we seek out one-on-one interactions that occur in person or remotely. We also want to connect with larger groups, with a global community, to enrich our lives with the collective ideas and experiences they offer. In this respect, the news has been one of the main ways by which I have connected with the living pulse of the planet and with our collective story as a people. However, when I examined more closely the information I was exposing myself to, I felt that I was consuming the equivalent of junk food for the mind. The mainstream news I tuned into was repetitive, uninspired, overly-dramatic, fear-driven, and predominantly negative. It also tended to have a narrow, unmoving, US-oriented local perspective. So, as an experiment, I decided to stop watching and reading the news during a 30 day period and then share the results in this article.

Old habits and the grapevine

I did not realize how ingrained the habit was for me to come home and automatically turn on the video webcast of the nightly news. Dare I say, I missed it. It was all pre-digested information with flashy graphics, peppered with sound bites, and served up on a hot platter. No thinking required, enjoy! While walking to work or during my lunch break I also found myself looking at news stands and having to remind myself to avert my gaze.

Total isolation is very difficult in a medium size city such as San Francisco, California. Nevertheless, during this self-imposed news fast, the only inkling that I had of what was going on in the world at large was through conversations that I accidentally overheard. I just caught snippets and, though the information was incomplete, I still desired the greater awareness that it offered. At the office, coworkers approached me and volunteered news. For example, they would start up conversations by asking "Have you heard the latest?" In these cases, I would listen and neither encourage nor discourage them from sharing information. Other ways in which the news was seeping back into my awareness was through headlines displayed on my email welcome page (I later learned how to bypass this screen).

Programmed feelings

At the emotional level I noticed that my feelings were a little disoriented. I did not know how to feel, because when you watch the news you know exactly how to feel. The news will tell you that it's time to feel fearful, worried, anxious, disappointed, yet slightly hopeful at the very end. Admittedly, there are news programs that make themselves desirable by the choice of content and the quality and depth of their analysis (e.g. "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer", PBS). Most news shows however belong to the more depressing borderline-sinister kind that will simultaneously become your poison and your antidote. They first poison your mind with alarmism and negativity "informing" you of people and entities you should fear and of how the group you belong to is losing its supremacy. Then they attempt to rescue you at the end of the broadcast with a trivial lighthearted piece on how a fireman rescued a kitten stranded on a tree. This has the effect of keeping you tuned in all the way to the end of the transmission despite frequent commercial breaks. Think about it, how many broadcasts begin with a positive outlook that highlights all the things that are working and going well? Would you associate with a person that started conversations on a negative note? Then why is it acceptable for a news program?

Protagonism vs. Spectatorship

With an extra 1-1.5 hours per day I started answering more of my personal correspondence, posted more growth and development articles on this website, and did more of the back-end computer programming that keeps the site running. For mental stimulation, I increasingly turned to books and watched online educational YouTube video clips on topics I found interesting. My mindset and activities shifted from passively consuming information to actively searching for it or creating it. The intensity of my activities also changed and became more binary. Just like a light switch, I was totally on and engaged in work or recreation, or I was totally off and sleeping, but I did not find myself in that twilight vegetative trance that TV so easily induces.

Breaking the Fast

After a month I was anxious to break the fast to see what news would feel like when approached with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. I was told by a relative that there was a video clip on a medical advance for an autoimmune illness, so I thought that this would be a good place to start. The first thing that struck me was the 15 second advertisement that preceded the clip. It felt so loud and agitated, a veritable assault on the eyes and the ears. It was something about a car; instinctively I pressed the mute button. That is when I realized how nice it had been to live without brain-programming advertisement. I actually found the news clip to be useful, a gem encased in a large lump of coal (it was bracketed by segments on unsolved shootings and the weather). I also asked a friend who is an avid listener of the news to bring me up to speed and tell me about all the newsworthy events I had missed out on. He drew a blank and could not tell me of a single memorable event for May 2009. This amnesia is more common than you think. The news is presented to you with exaggerated urgency, yet most of it is inconsequential on a daily basis and is eminently forgettable.

The dark side of the news

When taking in the news there are two types of brain programming going on. The first uses negativity and alarmism to keep you hooked to the broadcast. This focus exploits our emotional desire for safety, for things to get better, and our mental curiosity for solutions to problems (whether they are real or fictitious). And then come the ideas implanted by advertisers that are designed to have you purchase goods and services (whether you need them or not). Additionally, whether the news is positive or negative, left or right leaning, listening to it is always a passive activity. It deprives you of valuable time that you could invest in your own life to make it better, instead of wasting it worrying about distant events over which you have very little influence. Lastly, the news is inaccurate. The facts are often correct but the stories are filtered in favor of those that are shocking, spectacular, or heart-warming. These editorial choices create a misrepresentation of reality, except if you routinely witness murders and the inauguration of new bridges. We are shown the dark valleys of the human soul and occasionally it's sunny peaks, but little in between.

Calibrating news intake

I started wondering from where had I learned how often to consult the news and whether I could change the viewing frequency. These are good questions to ask, unless you enjoy living on autopilot. If so, shampoo, rinse, and shampoo again (as recommended by the manufacturer). Half way through the fast I could sense that I would permanently decrease the regularity with which I listened to the news. My estimates went from once every 3 days, to every 4 days, to once per week. Now I can tell you that I will not go back to viewing mainstream news in its present form -- at all. The gains I made during the fast are much too large to ignore and the news offers too little value for the price I pay in the form of emotional deflation, mental programming, and lost time. This change poses a whole new challenge. How will I stay connected with a larger community and to a broader perspective than my own? I believe that active participation in life, online research and postings, reading books, independent thinking, and personal connections with others will more than adequately supplant the indirect pseudo-connection I had through the media. This lifestyle choice, though very recent, has already resulted in an increase of my self-awareness and consciousness.

If you are not ready for such a radical change consider this: News intake can be calibrated to find an optimal balance between spectatorship (passive connection to others) and protagonism (active connection with others). In other words, you can connect with others by consuming information, but also by creating it. Life will be much richer if you live it on the creative side. Try these suggestions: create and send a friend an original six line poem. Instead of re-forwarding a list of jokes you found funny, type up what you find funny about your own life, and send that instead. Start writing the first chapter to your biography and share it with those that think they know you.

Lastly, think back at all the news you took in during the last 30 days. Name out loud the top stories that had a direct and immediate impact on your life (don't be surprised if nothing comes to mind). Would these stories have reached you anyway without you looking for them? Was it worth the 60 plus waking hours you invested to harvest that news? What else could you have done with this time? In the privacy of your mind, what news do you broadcast to yourself? What is the quality and accuracy of your internal dialog? Isn't that the information you should really be paying attention to?