The sloppy, fast-paced news cycle of 1891

"America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence, [...] the frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition." Journalist W.J. Stillman, writing in The Atlantic Monthly about the negative influence of the telegraph, 1891.

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  1. Neil Postman made similar observations in “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” It is increasingly a book for our times.

  2. A few years ago I stopped reading newspapers and watching television news. Now it is online for the quick stuff, and magazines for the thoughtful stuff. This is in large part because daily news is so often focused on individual tragedy without any thought for the context. How many pictures of car accidents do I need to see? How about one with a thoughtful discussion of car safety, rather than one daily and a breathless enumeration of the number of children dead (or the number of children the dead person had).

  3. Is this a “Look at all the pessimists, they were wrong back then and they are wrong now!” quote or a “He had no idea how far down we could go without hitting rock bottom.” quote?

  4. This reminds me of an article once read to my class by an English teacher, about how the pencil with an eraser would eventually destroy the English language.

  5. The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain. — Martin Luther, Table Talk, 1530s

  6. Hey, what a great Martin Luther quote! Thanks, wafna!
    And thanks, Maggie, for the 1891 complaint too.

    Just goes to show, the change-averse curmudgeon is a timeless and universal phenomenon…

  7. Just because there are similarities between such sentiments then and now, it doesn’t mean that both are wrong (or right). I’m sure there were initial reactions to things like processing foods—and at least in that case it’s clearer that at a certain level you get pasteurization, and at a further one you get Cheetos. It’s pretty clear by now that foods that processed are just bad. So there’s a whole complicated story/spectrum/whateveritsreallycomplicated.

    But to drastically simplify, I am of the firm belief that there is absolutely an informational equivalent of Cheetos, and that there is absolutely no natural law that dictates it must be made and distributed in vast quantities.

    But another thing I think whenever I see something like this is that—1891, in a lot of ways, just wasn’t that long ago.

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