“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
— Romans 12:15
There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that there are still a few categories of things that get covered as either Good News or as Bad News. The bad news is that the fear of being accused of partisanship by hyper-partisan bullies keeps most stories from being told as either.
This is what drives most media bias. It’s not that stories are slanted either to the left or to the right, to the D’s or the R’s, but that news media are so concerned about avoiding the perception of any such partisan bias that they often refuse to treat Good News as Good News and Bad News as Bad.
The most obvious examples of this involve reporting on political outcomes that ought to be either celebrated or lamented, but aren’t allowed to be due to the worry that acknowledging that reality would seem biased against the “other side” of the matter. Thus, for example, if some state legislature opts to extend the school lunch program through the summer, we aren’t given the chance to celebrate the Good News that thousands of hungry children will be fed, even though this is, objectively speaking, Good News. But this bias against rejoicing with those who rejoice or mourning with those who mourn extends even beyond explicitly political news involving conflict between opposing political parties.
Consider a local news report about a house fire. House fires are not regarded as partisan events — not yet, anyway, so a story about a house fire can still be reported as Bad News, which is to say that it can still be reported honestly and accurately, without the weirdly false pretense that it is neither Good nor Bad. Here is a local family who lost their home. That’s Bad. It would be weird and gross to attempt to tell this story without acknowledging that. It would be wrong — both in the sense that it would be cruelly immoral and in the sense that it would be untrue. The impact of the story is not neutral and any report that attempted to present it as such would get the story wrong.
So the report of a house fire in a local paper is often able to get the story right in a way that reports on Congress will not be able to get it right. Nobody is likely to have invested their own identity — their sense of self and of self-worth — as being linked to the fortunes of the fire. So no one is likely to feel or to feign offense at the fire being reported as Bad News because it caused harm to our neighbors. Nor is the event perceived as part of the ever-growing zero-sum struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives,” so there isn’t any easy way to try to impose a dishonest “both-sides” framework that presents the story as a win for one side and a loss for the other and therefore, on “balance,” neither Good News nor Bad News.
But even something as straightforwardly, self-evidently Bad News as a local house fire will still be read or watched by many who will perceive it, like they perceive absolutely everything, through a partisan lens. What if, for example, the family that lost its home was a same-sex couple? Or if they are first-generation immigrants? Or second-generation immigrants? Or ninth-generation Americans descended from slaves? The reporting on that story will be more reluctant to accurately convey that this family losing its home is Bad News. The reporting will take pains to avoid offending the easily offended bloc of its potential audience who will indignantly refuse to have sympathy for non-straight or non-white neighbors “shoved down their throats.” Any mention of any news involving “those people” will be perceived by that segment of the audience as a provocation directed at them personally — a “left-wing” agenda, etc. etc.
Not provoking this perpetually provoked segment of the audience has become, for much of our news media, a higher priority than accuracy. And so they’ll avoid reporting this Bad News as Bad News.
All of which is why, I think, we haven’t been permitted to grieve the deaths of more than 90,000 of our neighbors over the past several weeks. We haven’t been permitted to acknowledge the weight of that. We’re treated, instead, to news updates on the pandemic that weirdly tip-toe around the otherwise obvious fact that a pandemic that kills 90,000 of us is — objectively — Bad News. Recognizing that obvious fact would be regarded by the Perpetually Aggrieved faction as a biased, “partisan” attack presented only for the partisan aim of making Donald Trump — the champion of the Perpetually Aggrieved — “look bad.” As though all that matters is dueling perceptions. As though nothing that “looks bad” might appear so because it is, in fact, bad.
This refusal to allow public space for public mourning — media space, emotional space, head space — is throwing us all out of balance. It’s unnerving and unsettling in the way that all such Orwellian doublespeak is. But it digs deeper, I think, because this isn’t just doublespeak or doublethink, it’s double-feel. Our national grief is rising, daily, but we’re asked to ignore it, to pretend it isn’t there instead of expressing it, sharing it, or sharing in it.
But ignoring that flood of Bad News won’t make it go away. Like the floodwaters behind the Enfield Dam, all that grief is going to have to go somewhere. And when it does, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.