Tuning Into the Un-News

These days we are all flooded with news, or what passes for news.  I can’t even open a browser or a newsfeed without seeing a slideshow of all the news stories the curators of the browser or their algorithmic robots think is important.  I remember the days when there was no internet, when the news was announced by one of the three major television networks, when Walter Cronkite ended his half-hour of news by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” and we all accepted and believed it.

It is now almost a cliché to say that we live in a post-truth world.  There are numberless sources of “news,” of every political and social slant.  People can curate their own news, visit only those sources that agree with their own biases or assessments of what is true.  Just to take one salient example from the news of the moment, there are multiple points of view about the Covid vaccines and masking, and depending on which point of view you believe, you get the vaccine and wear a mask, or you resist the vaccine and remain maskless.  This is not just a matter of personal preference; people are being hospitalized and dying as a consequence of this disagreement.

I too have my own preferences in where I go to see the news.  My default vanilla news site is the Associated Press (AP.com), which has a long and storied history of reliably reporting what is happening without undue bias or distortion.  I visit many other sites too. But I have come to realize that there is also an entire universe of events throughout our country and the world which are reported by no news site, which cannot even be gleaned accurately in social media.  My own term for this universe of events is the “un-news.” The un-news is the sum total of all that is going on in the lives of ordinary people, the aggregation of all their observations, conversations, and experiences.  I think from time immemorial this un-news has been conveyed orally, person to person, group to group, informally and without overarching organization.  Even before there were broadsheets, town criers, and street corner orators, there was what we might call “significant gossip,” people telling other people what they deemed to be important.

How was this un-news conveyed in colonial America, in medieval Europe, in the Roman Empire or the Greek city-states? The same way it is now—humming along the wireless connections of human connectivity and relationship.  Now, whenever I read the news, in all its (to me) often depressing and discouraging detail, I ask myself: What does the un-news have to say? Beneath the turmoil of the 24-7 news cycle, can I hear the undercurrent murmuring of what collective humanity is really thinking and feeling? Within that quiet background chatter is there more optimism, more hope? I think there is.  I think there has to be, because, to paraphrase French philosopher Albert Camus at the beginning of his masterpiece The Rebel, “the only important philosophical question is why people do not commit suicide.”  He is pointing, I believe, to the persistence in the face of all odds of hope.

Sometimes what begins as un-news filters up until it is noticed and picked up by an enterprising reporter and becomes actual news.  Here are a couple of examples.  Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician, met a Ku Klux Klan member in a bar many years ago.  He befriended the man, and began a campaign to befriend other Klan members.  Eventually he convinced 200 Klan members to give up their robes.  He did this work unremarked and unreported for many years before his work was noticed, at which point, in the current argot, it “went viral.”  Read his story here.

Another example:  Truffles the cat, who wears glasses in a Pennsylvania eye clinic for children, helps the kids feel comfortable wearing glasses.  Again, this was un-news, just something the eye clinic’s physician dreamed up.  It went unnoticed until some enterprising reporter picked it up.  Now Truffles is famous. 

Perhaps we could say that much of what we call the “news” is just something in the vast reservoir of the un-news that someone eventually noticed.

How many Daryl Davises or Truffles the Cats are out there doing good work, helping people with no expectation of becoming “news” or being famous? Probably as many as there are people in the world.  Everyone who lives is and can be a daily creator of un-news.  We don’t need to know who they are, we just need to know that they are there.