None of the dots in my last three paragraphs deserves to be controversial, give or take a few qualifiers here and there. Neither is Fuller’s account of the philosophical-cultural climate that is melting down the news as we knew it. The truly arresting aspect of his book is not what he has to say about the rise of skepticism, the decline of authority, and the clamor of rivals for readers’ attention—solid as his arguments are. Nor is it his recognition that the more different people are, the less they are held together by traditional institutions, so that if they are to have common themes to connect them, they must look outside their families, outside their clans, to celebrities.
Even Fuller’s argument that bad news is flatly more interesting than good is less than scintillating. The brain, after all, is built to be seized by bad news. Here neuroscience intersects with sociology. Put bad news together with flashy news and celebrity news and you get the high-res, tabloid, rant stew that is rapidly rendering obsolete the quiet, balanced, fact-based, Cronkited news we used to know and love. Goodbye, al-Qaeda, fiscal meltdown, and Afghan war; hello, Tiger Woods.
No, the big story that Fuller brings is the claim that the neuroscientific facts have a great deal to do with the news industry facts. “The brains we use to deal with today’s message-saturated information environment are pretty much the same brains that our African ancestors used to outwit the big cats,” he writes. “Is it any wonder that we have lately been behaving kind of strangely toward the news?”
But it is precisely this claim—disguised as it is by a rhetorical question—that runs athwart a fundamental problem. The neurons have persisted essentially unchanged across hundreds of millennia. How, then, do enduring features of the human animal help explain a feature of social life that has cropped up over the last decade or so? This is like asking how the fact that the earth revolves around the sun helps explains why there is no peace in the Middle East. In a certain formal sense, of course, it does help—it’s a precondition. If there were no solar system, there’d be no human race to populate a Middle East in the first place. But how far does that take us, really, toward understanding?
Neuroscience is sexy stuff nowadays, partly for a reason that Fuller well comprehends. It doesn’t just talk about the brain, it shows it. Wow, does it ever. All those visuals, those captivating full-color brain scans displaying those bright patches! But again, we’re looking at essentially the same brain that paid attention to inflammatory, ad hominem news in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “objective” news in the middle of the twentieth century, and now, Rush Limbaugh and Fox.
So Fuller exaggerates the transhistorical background in attempting to explain what is going wrong in the connection between news and its customers. But his version of journalism history doesn’t tell us much about current trends either. “At the same time that the increasing demands on our old brains make us more vulnerable to emotional presentation,” he writes, “the increasing competition among media leads them to ratchet up the emotion.” Surely they were ratcheting up emotion in 1828, when party-based papers exchanged charges of pimping and bigamy during the presidential campaign pitting John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson; and in 1836, when James Gordon Bennett splashed the prostitute Helen Fuller’s murder across the front page of the New York Herald; and in the late nineteenth century, when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was winning readers with slum exposés; and for that matter, during the many decades when the New York Daily News was outselling The New York Times—during most of their overlapping history, in fact.
Fuller concludes with some sensible advice to journalists. Holding fast to independence, verification, and respect, he writes, “they must let loose of… neutrality, disinterestedness, and distrust of emotion.” Only thus will they appeal to the relatively ill-informed and inattentive readers who make up, in fact, the bulk of the population. Fair enough. But he didn’t need neuroscience to tell him that.
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