There is nothing more depressing than “positive news”

The world is often a bummer, but a whole ecosystem of podcasts and Facebook pages have sprung up to assure you that things are actually great.

There is nothing more depressing than “positive news”

The world is often a bummer, but a whole ecosystem of podcasts and Facebook pages have sprung up to assure you that things are actually great.

Scroll below any news network’s tweet about an act of human kindness or survival and you’ll find the grateful replies: “Finally, some good news for a change,” and “We need more stories like this!” and “Faith in humanity restored!” These enthusiasts are the reason a video of a police officer knotting a teenager’s tie on the street outside a high school graduation ceremony can rack up 41,000 faves in two days. It would seem that the American news consumer is at all times hovering perilously close to a freefall of catastrophic misanthropy, only yanked back to safety by two paragraphs on a charitable recycling project or a video of a dad who beatboxes with his baby. These remarks indicate a belief that the news is overwhelmingly and indeed unnecessarily negative, and we need an antidote to its poison.

Enter “positive news” — an upbeat subsection of the human-interest story, a genre comprised of podcasts, news aggregators, and some very popular Facebook pages. The Good News Network, an online newspaper that has 585,000 likes on Facebook, was created in 1997 by founder Geri Weis-Corbley “because the media was failing to report the positive news.” GNN says its stories are “inspiring” their readers, though we are left to imagine just what they are being inspired to do. A typical GNN front page might contain stories about an animal rescue, an anecdote about environmental preservation, a homeless person experiencing a windfall, or a child who started his own business.

Positive news is categorized not just by content but by framing and prominence — it is not simply that a nice thing happened, but said nice thing gives us hope for the very future of humanity that we are elsewhere denied. And this, to seekers of positive news, is exactly the point. The media could present stories in a more uplifting fashion, but instead wants to titillate and frighten us. This is somewhat true. You don’t have to be a particularly savvy reader to know when you’re being baited. But for the positive news consumer the issue is not a melodramatic headline here or there. Rather, the positive news lover believes that straight news isn’t just negative, but essentially fake, and positive news does more than make a reader feel good, it delivers a fundamental truth. GNN’s website tells us, “Thomas Jefferson said the job of journalists was to portray accurately what was happening in society,” and the site exists to compensate for their failure. Jefferson also wrote that “that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them,” but it’s best not to let the Sage of Monticello clutter the “About” page with anti-literacy rants.

The Good News Podcast, produced by Cards Against Humanity, advertises itself as a salve for the news-poisoned, a listening experience that will “make each day more bearable.” Each episode is roughly four minutes long, which is almost unbearably cute. For reference, my favorite podcast is two guys spending roughly the length of a movie discussing that movie, so my tolerance may be unusually high. One two-minute episode, “Good News About Animals,” features 30 seconds on the doubling of Nepal’s tiger population. The segment assumes the listener’s awareness of endangered species but avoids any “negative” references to the sixth extinction. After all, it’s tough to get into the drought-shriveled weeds in two minutes.

Yes, there are immigrant children in concentration camps on American soil, and that’s depressing. The people demand a change of subject.

Aggressively Positive, a newer podcast with a smaller following, has a longer format. Each 30-minute episode features host Adam Theroux reading positive news stories and rambling about the importance of being nice. Theroux mixes a shock jock growl with the dip-and-uptalk vocal cadence of an evangelical youth pastor, which is exactly as unsettling as it sounds. His signature style is to yell the positive news items at you in between verbal paroxysms such as “I AM SO HAPPY” and Tony Robbins speechifying: “Life is good. Right? It has to be. I’m in charge of it. I’m gonna make sure it’s enjoyable.” After reading a story about an elderly Canadian woman who has waved to schoolchildren every day for twelve years, Theroux tells us, “If you wanna be happy, do happy. make happy. Happy happy... just TRY. Try to be happy. Sooo, are you happy? I am!” This failed to cheer me.

Lamenting journalistic negativity isn’t just for peppy podcasters and presidential tweets; it’s a cornerstone of modern American conservatism, the origins of which lie in the Nixon Administration. The disingenuousness of the Administration’s public complaints about an “elite” media exerting undue influence on the American people is revealed in the Nixon tapes when the president tells his staff, “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy.” Publicly, the complaint was about delivering truth to constituents; privately, it was an attempt to pacify an anxious nation. Speechwriter William Safire — by way of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew — referred to the news media as “nattering nabobs of negativism” who “have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.’’

In 1970, Agnew was irritated about mouthy news types exposing his secret bombing campaigns; hysteria meant telling the truth about what the government was doing. He no doubt had the same complaint about the district attorney investigating him for felony tax evasion. According to the Nixon Administration, a silent majority of Americans waited for good sense to reassert itself against the counter-culturists and anti-war activists. The current positive news sites, too, claim to be serving a silent majority that shakes their heads at the comment threaders, the protest marchers, the refugee advocates, and anyone who wants to talk about affordable daycare. Yes, there are immigrant children in concentration camps on American soil, and that’s depressing. The people demand a change of subject. The desire for positive news may occur among either political affiliation, but it reflects regressive and even reactionary values.

In the Trump Era this phenomenon takes on new urgency and perhaps new implications. With a negative/positive model, consumers can choose a flavor of news based not on the content, but emotional impact. In this way, the consumption process mirrors positive news itself: it centers the individual, and the individual is usually the subject of the positive news story. Structural problems are only mentioned when they’re being overcome by particularly plucky free agents who choose benevolence and charity out of pure free will. Positive news is necessarily regressive because it does not identify, much less critique, systemic problems or injustices. On the contrary, it often elides and obscures conflict; in fact, that’s one of its main appeals. That video I mentioned earlier, of the police officer and the high schooler who needed help with his graduation outfit? The cop is black, the teen is white, and it takes place in Georgia.

Ideas about motivation and individual action, rather than social circumstance or political will, are indeed the genesis of positive news curation. Critics of the so-called hyper-negativity of the news cite studies showing that unhappy stories create depression and apathy in readers, but this reasoning suggests that knowledge of a problem is useless unless it inspires work towards a solution. And positive reporting, in its presentation of problems as not just solvable but currently being solved, can be just as demotivating. For example, The Guardian’s positive news or “constructive journalism” section, The Upside, recently featured a story about a Peruvian 14-year-old who founded a children’s bank that gives microloans to kids who collect trash for recycling. This item satisfies two major positive news criteria: environmental solutions and poor people helping themselves. Like much “inspirational” content, though, the effect on the reader could easily be just as de-motivating, because what action needs to be taken? The Peruvian children are doing great. They have a trash bank now.

Readers of positive news are saved, in a sense, from despair, and from their own impulses towards selfish negativity.

Positive news is often lauded for inspiring faith in our fundamental goodness, and if we religiously seek out and cling to uplifting stories, that’s probably not a coincidence; the word gospel comes from the Greek and Old English words for good news. Many of the most popular modern translations of the Gospels have Jesus sharing “good news” to those he meets on his travels. Hebrews 4, written sometime in the century after Christ’s death, warns new Christians not to disregard “the good news” as their Israelite predecessors did, an oversight which resulted in an entire generation being barred from entering the Promised Land. Readers of positive news are saved, in a sense, from despair, and from their own impulses towards selfish negativity.

Interesting, then, that many of the modern purveyors of positive news are YouTube pundits and logic lovers whose shtick can be traced through the New Atheist movement. On a December 2018 edition of political talk show The Rubin Report, host Dave Rubin interviewed Marian Tupy, a Cato Institute policy analyst and editor of HumanProgress.org, a positive news aggregator and data bank whose website claims “there is often a wide gap between the reality of human experience, which is characterized by incremental improvements, and public perception, which tends to be quite negative about the current state of the world.”

Tupy, a blandly attractive European with half a South African accent, lists developments that recommend the world of today: longer lives, less poverty, far fewer Medieval peasants. Rubin, who spends most of his time on Twitter complaining to his half a million followers about supposed deplatforming and attacks by autocratic tech companies and a coordinated, conversation-averse Left, concludes that modern people “nit-pick about little things constantly and think they’re massive when yeah, we’re not dying of mass — we’re doing a lot with disease... we’ve made our lives way safer and extended our lives.” When climate change comes up, Tupy declines to comment on its dangers, emphasizing economic development instead. He refers to a future in which Africans can buy air-conditioners and Argentinians have access to heaters, appearing to suggest that the danger of climate change comes down to the individual’s comfort level in her own home. Rubin’s thoughts on climate change run to “is it possible that in some of the places that it’s warming, it’s actually good that it’s warming?”

It’s easy to laugh at Rubin for this — I certainly did — but he’s echoing a line of thought whose adherents are called lukewarmers or climate optimists. These skeptics accept climate change, and anthropogenic climate change to an extent, but predict temperature rise well below IPCC estimates and dismiss the “alarmist view of global warming.” Climate optimism is a perplexing concept, because those they accuse of apocalyptic fatalism and fear-mongering are the ones putting forward solutions: the Green New Deal and the Paris Agreement both resulted from the “negative” reasoning the optimists decry. Climate optimists take a longview: if we’re on the decline, it’s only because circumstances periodically decline irrespective of human activity. This good news reassures us that progressive policy and structural reform are unnecessary reactions to imaginary threats. And that’s the real positive news: you don’t have to do anything. Nothing has to change.

Early last year the National Review Online published a piece by alt-right icon Ben Shapiro, “2018 Is a Great Time to Be Alive,” a response to leftist discussion of rising income inequality. Shapiro writes of his recent trip to a speaking engagement, listing 21 products and services that enriched his experience along with the dates they were invented. The oldest is his electric toothbrush and the latest is his MacBook Pro, with additional shout-outs to Advil and the availability on iTunes of the Brandenburg Concerto, which recording he claims to have listened to on an airplane. His point is that our quality of life is getting better all the time: we have, on average, bigger houses and longer lives than our grandparents did. To Shapiro, the claim that Americans are worse off than they were in 1970 can be disproven by an inventory of our personal electronics caches. So you say real wages have declined. Well, do you own an iPhone? Q.E.D. He doesn’t even bother rebutting claims about rising inequality; he can’t, and his audience doesn’t care.

The point isn’t that the other side makes a compelling or fact-based point, but that they need to stop bitching. Take an Advil (courtesy of 1974, perhaps enjoyed by Richard Nixon as he himself railed against the unappreciative whiners) and buy yourself one of those sprawling ranch-styles your ancestors would envy. A contemporaneous Quillette article reports that “Income inequality may have increased, but a greater proportion of people than ever before enjoy wealth that only two or three generations ago would have been unfathomable.” Essentially, if I have a DivaCup where my grandmother had a sanitary belt, I can’t be upset that my student loan balance exceeds my annual income.

That’s the real positive news: you don’t have to do anything. Nothing has to change.

The psychologist and Panglossian dolt Steven Pinker makes his living reassuring us that the world is getting better all the time and criticizing the media for obscuring that fact. Pinker recently tweeted a graph from his new book showing that news reporting has become more negative even while our lives improve. This data comes from Kalev Leetaru, co-creator of the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone. GDELT “monitors the world's broadcast, print, and web news from nearly every corner of every country in over 100 languages,” cataloguing the content by various metrics: names, themes, tone. Pinker uses data published in 2011 that shows, in Leetaru’s words, “a steady, near linear, march towards negativity” in New York Times articles between 1945 and 2005. The methodology at work here involves a process called sentiment mining or tone mining, which catalogued the articles’ language by the mood it evokes..

This is pretty cool, but also potentially misleading; the effect of this content on the reader can depend on the extent to which she conflates a news item’s tone with its content. After all, “the death of iTunes” is only bad news if you think iTunes has anything left to offer us. And anyway, they just split its functions into three separate apps. Furthermore, is this showing an increase in the percentage of negative words used, or an increase in negative words total, which could be partly explained by an increase in the gross number of articles published? It’s probably important to note that two months after the publication of this data, in late 2011, Leetaru was fired from the University of Illinois for research misconduct..

What yokes Pinker and Shapiro and Rubin together with your kooky aunt who posts relentlessly about surprising animal friendships on Facebook is the idea of what we are supposed to do with the information they provide: precisely nothing. The throughline of positive news and rebranded conservative intellectualism is the reassurance that action is not necessary. Progress is what happened to get us here, and current problems can surely be dealt with in a manner that doesn’t cause discomfort. Any negative emotion is the enemy, be it despair about climate or a burgeoning suspicion that your words are causing real harm to others. “If you wanna be happy, do happy. make happy. Happy happy... just TRY. Try to be happy. Sooo, are you happy?” I am not, and you probably shouldn’t be either.

Joanna Mang is an adjunct professor of English.