The Onion: Breaking News

Originally made almost ten years ago, this video of a generic news story still applies as if it were made today (note: rough language not suitable for young children):

It’s a spot-on parody of news stories and their utter vacuity. The basic problem with news as a business is that the world produces important news at whatever rate it feels like, while new publications must publish on whatever schedule they’ve chosen; these days often hourly.

It should be noted that this introduces selection pressures which cause evolutionary changes in the people who present news as a business.

Possibly more interesting, however, is surprise that a ten year old piece of humor should still apply today. Why wouldn’t it? It’s making fun of something human beings do, and human beings do not change very much. There is the minor technological dependency on the particular thing being done, in the firehose of news depends upon technology which permits instant publishing. True, several hundred years ago one couldn’t say “in a desperate attempt to fill 24 hours of programming”.

But even several hundred years ago newspapers had a regular publishing schedule because men become hungry on a regular schedule and must therefore have money with which to buy food on a regular schedule. And several hundred years ago, as today, the world produces important news on whatever schedule it wishes, without regard to the bellies of newspapermen.

To wit, this advice of Thomas Jefferson to a fellow about how to run a newspaper is as true today as it was in 1807, when it was written, and can be adapted with only the slightest changes to television and internet news:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on. I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.

14 June 1807 Works 10:417–18

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