I have learned of myself, that when I am working on something at the computer and come to a problem I cannot immediately solve, I often end up looking at news web sites. I have never made a study of how much time I waste in this fashion, but it’s noticeable. Whenever things get out of hand I use a browser plugin (recently, Chrome Nanny) to restrict my access to these sites during business hours. In an effort to break the habit of distracting myself more generally, I have attempted month-long “news fasts” where I don’t read any news at all, no matter the time of day. (About a year ago I did a variant where I only read news from The Economist, thus guaranteeing a certain quality to what I did read.) I am in the midst of such a fast right now and, aside from the advantage of the personal discipline I gain from giving things up generally, I have had some good insights about “the news” in general.

The first insight is an old one, but one which I am better learning to apply in my life. It is this: in the course of the lives of 7 billion people, things are happening all the time. Sometimes those events are momentous enough to warrant public attention: I need to be aware of certain events simply as a part of global citizenship. Yet these events do not occur all the time. They certainly do not occur on a 24-hour schedule. Even if I were to exert an iron will and only check “the news” once per day, I would still be sampling far too often.

A related insight is that “the news” occurs in an ecological context that bears little relation to the real world. The ecological context is that there has to be news—certainly every day, but more and more, every hour. News organizations are thus placed in the difficult position of having to say something every day. There is time to fill on the air; there is space to fill on the web page. The absurdity of this is seen best when projected into a different genre. Could you imagine a history of the Civil War written with the requirement that every day—perhaps every hour—be given equal space on the page?

It would be novel, but in the long run not sustainable, for a news organization to simply confess, “Nothing happened today that’s worth your attention.” As we know, what happens instead is that we get news about celebrities and non-events—most of which seem to involve pictures recently taken—and idiotic lifestyle stories—most of which relate to who is fat, who is thin, who gets to decide, and how those people’s judgments are questionable, wrong, invalid, or offensive. Of course when it’s time to read the news, I do often think, “That’s stupid,” but then too often I think instead, “I wonder what that’s about.” That is, rather than identifying the stupid I absorb the stupid.

(Incidentally, my first thoughts about this sort of a mismatch were in reflecting on the field of biblical studies. There is a steady flow of young academics who need publications, and steady flow of publishing houses that need new titles, but a somewhat less steady flow of new ideas. I think we avoid this for the most part in linguistics, because our subject matter is so large, though we certainly run into different problems.)

A second insight has been building up more gradually—possibly because I have been slow to recognize the situation, or possibly because the problem is becoming more serious—and that is that news reporting is becoming more about the news itself, and less about reality. For instance, in the recent death in police custody incident and subsequent unrest in Baltimore, there was far more reporting about reporting, than reporting of actual fact. So we don’t have a story about a Walgreens being burnt down we have reporting about how the burning of the Walgreens was being reported, or not being reported. And this is taken to be an indicator of social concern—as if the media outlets have ever been institutions of any moment, rather than cesspools of the most the outrageous pabulum that can be discovered on any given day.

(Though even as I write this, there was one occasion when media reporting on media was a lot of fun. In the 2008 Democratic primary, in the run up to the South Carolina primary, there was a news story on CNN.com about how black South Carolinian women were being forced to choose whether to vote their race or their sex—i.e., between the white female Hillary Clinton and black male Barrack Obama. This was such a monumentally stupid thing to say that the next day the headline was how much criticism CNN had received over the story. Many of the comments appreciated the irony that CNN—a putatively liberal news establishment—was depicting the voting decisions of black women as a matter of demographic allegiance, whereas white men had the same putative dilemma in choosing between a white female and a black male, and yet were not being represented as having to make their decision on those grounds.)

This is related to the third insight, which is that the news seems more and more to be driven by demographic angles. After the recent church shooting there were comparisons between reporting on the burning of black churches and the burning of the Walgreens—which, I am led to infer, is somehow a prototypically white establishment. There were stories about how when white people kill people it’s “just” mental illness, whereas when black people kill people… something else, which I don’t recall. There were meta-meta-stories about whether a shooting in a black church should be a story about violence against black people or a story about violence against Christian people. I do not recall anyone advocating that it should be a story about violence against people.

Nor is it a mystery how or why this demographic approach came about. In describing the present media context, I cannot think of a more important word than “clickbait.” If there is a shooting in a black church, then I can be relied upon to read one news story about it. But if there is a controversy over how the shooting is reported, then I can be relief upon to read many more of those stories than just one. Advertising revenue is driven by impressions and clicks. Certainly sex is the best way to attract attention—it cannot be a coincidence that the word “topples” has become ubiquitous in headlines—but inciting ugly tribal feelings is surely the second best way. I suspect that in news organizations this is discussed openly as a means of generating revenue.

This is of course not without effect in the way that people editorialize. I am somehow able to believe simultaneously that attacking straw men has always been a feature of editorials, and that we are sinking to a new low. Perhaps previously writers engaged in the practice out of intellectual laziness, whereas now it is a matter of profit as well. In the past a Republican might paint a Democrat as a communist rather than engaging with his/her ideas, but now surely it is also the best way to get clicks from your Republican readership. This is seen in two respects. First, it is certainly more advantageous to report on fringe characters than to report on typical people. If some Democrat can be found who wants to abolish private property, or some Republican who wishes to grind the bones of the poor to bake his bread, then that person will certainly be located by the news media. (I have heard firsthand accounts of television news people interviewing people one after another to find someone willing to say something controversial.) In this first instance at least the straw man is real. It used to be that putting a microphone in the face of the biggest idiot you could find was the exclusive purview of Jerry Springer, but his ratings were too good for the news media to refrain from imitating his methods.

But it seems more often that editorialists pursue a second route, in arguing against what everybody really knows that those evil people actually believe. Thus if an urban black community wants a more accountable police force, then everybody really knows that those people just don’t want there to be laws. If a farmer on the U.S.–Mexico wants existing immigration laws to be enforced, then everybody really knows that he’s just a slobbering racist. As a reader of the news, I am left with the impression that this is really what Republicans and Democrats actually believe. If I have never met anyone who espoused either of those “real” views, then that just goes to show how good those evil people are at hiding their real agenda.

Now this is not to suggest that politicians and political organizations are never actually sneaky. Gun rights advocates oppose background checks for the same reason that abortion rights activists oppose parental notification laws; either policy in itself is entirely reasonable, but also restricts a certain practice (abortion or gun ownership), which to a certain extent stigmatizes that practice. (That is also, of course, why gun control advocates promote background checks and pro-life activists promote parental notification laws.) What’s really strange about the news is that everybody knows how the game works—or if they don’t, I just explained it in one sentence, so how hard can it be to get the word out?—and yet no one acknowledges it. And so political theater takes on the character of a magic show, in which performers and audience alike understand that nothing is really happening, but are willing to suspend disbelief for the event.

As a result of these things, I find that even when I don’t read the news, I am not noticeably less well informed about world events. Complex situations like the annexation of Crimea a year ago, or the rise of the Islamic State further back, cannot be appreciated in the least from the trickle of incoherent narrative that the news media reports. Even with hindsight it is difficult to understand complex events. I can’t say how many times I’ve tried to piece together the business between the Serbs, Croats, Albanians, and Kosovars. I always give up, either in trying to keep straight in my head all the religions, ethnicities, and languages of the respective groups, or when the history of recriminations and counter-recriminations stretches back to before World War I. And I am still not sure which faction of the mess in Egypt I ought to support.

And the final result is that I am considering giving up the news altogether, and learning about world events either from more solid sources less frequently, or perhaps even only as they relate to me and to my friends more immediately. I cannot but think that this will make me less stupid.