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800 Words

It's All Good

January 08, 2006|Dan Neil

Ask anyone who knows me: I'm an optimistic guy. My personal landscape is littered with glasses half-full and relocated rubber trees. I believe that when life hands you lemons, make a mildly astringent skin toner.

So I'm sympathetic to the impulse behind HappyNews.com, a chin-chucking website offering readers positive, encouraging stories as an anodyne to the daily serving of despair that, according to HappyNews.com publisher Byron Reese, composes most news coverage.

Launched last summer, HappyNews.com is beat reporting from the sunny side of the street. On the Web page recently were stories about the world's oldest woman; rising seat-belt use; a young mother who managed to toss her baby out of a burning building into the arms of a rescuer; and Mexican park rangers' efforts to protect the nesting grounds of monarch butterflies.

I feel happier already. I also feel as though I've ingested a fast-acting brain softener.

An uncluttered optimism has always been part of the American character--certainly as compared to the fraught anomie of European intellectualism--and HappyNews.com is no more than a JavaScript version of the venerable Grit magazine, with its tales of heroic dogs and beloved grandparents.

Yet to sort through HappyNews.com's offerings is to appreciate the bicameral nature of good fortune. One item concerns the appearance of the Chinese car company Geely at the annual auto show in Detroit. That the Chinese are planning to sell cars in the U.S. might be good news for Geely, but for people in the already plagued Motor City, this development might as well wear a cloak and carry a scythe. Another item reports on a videoconference program connecting soldiers to their loved ones back home. Wouldn't better news be that, you know, they were coming home?

Reese says HappyNews.com isn't meant to replace traditional news coverage but only to balance it in the pursuit of a deeper verity. "We're not trying to spin the news," he says. "We would never run a story that says, 'Thirteen people survive plane crash,' when 200 died." But Reese believes that planet Earth is ultimately a pretty good place and it's getting better all the time. HappyNews.com offers a more accurate view of the world "because traditional media overemphasizes sad or depressing news," says the 37-year-old Texan.

People who work in newspapers hear this song all the time. Why is the news so negative, so depressing? I'm trying to eat my cereal here and you hit me with genocide in Darfur! A lot of bad things happen each and every day, and it can be overwhelming. People want some surcease, something to feel good about. That's not wrong, is it?

Why yes, yes it is. For starters, daily newspapers brim with good news. After all, what is the Sports section but a record of a vast, consequence-free enterprise that makes people feel good? Where's the bad news in the Style section? That leg warmers are back?

Good news even has its own newsroom slang: a "bright," as in, "Write me a 15-inch bright on that water-skiing squirrel." Or whatever.

That anyone could come away from a typical American newspaper thinking it's full of bad news only shows how furiously selective their filtering is, how allergic we've become to any data that unsteadies our tranquility.

The truth is America is slap-happy with happy news. Look at the top 10 consumer magazines by circulation, with gloom-and-doom titles such as "Good Housekeeping" and "Family Circle." Compare the viewership of the Cassandras of public television--such as "Frontline"--with "Entertainment Tonight" or "Access Hollywood." The thin runnels of bad news, or hard news, that reach the American public are nothing compared to the oceans of shrilly cheerful entertainment, publicity, sports and marketing that cover us to bathyspheric depths.

The radical French philosopher Guy Debord called this super-pressurized, distracting emptiness the "Society of the Spectacle." "It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity."

Actually, good news is kind of dangerous. It lends comfort to the comfortable. It ratifies complacency. Good news is essentially reactionary since it fortifies those in power. Which is why HappyNews.com looks like a Pentagon operation.

In November, the Los Angeles Times revealed the workings of Lincoln Group, a covert word-mill hired by the Pentagon that was paying Iraqi newspapers to place "good news" written by the American military. (Headline: "Thousands of cars don't explode"). It's now clear that Lincoln was but a retail outlet in a wholesale propaganda effort run out of the Army's psychological operations unit in Fort Bragg, N.C.

With HappyNews.com, we're in the same position as the Iraqis, celebrating what minor victories can be found in life--Hey, the power's back on!--while the world around us falls apart in a major way.

The trouble with HappyNews.com is that it valorizes the ordinary as something extraordinary. The website's credo says it best: "We believe virtue, goodwill and heroism are hot news."

Is it just me or is that terribly sad?

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