Proper Perspective for Disturbing Media Messages

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As we look back on the year just passed, a troubling question becomes unavoidable: Why do Americans feel so bad when, by every meaningful measure, we have it so good?

That’s the question that troubles me every evening as I head home from work. As part of my daily radio show, I’m exposed to a steady stream of self-pity and complaint. Callers from every major city regularly insist that our country faces imminent collapse or destruction, suggesting that the current generation has been conspicuously cursed. They echo prominent voices in media and politics that cite the seething anger of the populace and argue that candidates like Trump or Sanders express the righteous wrath of the suffering public.

But what measures of national well-being provide evidence to support such perceptions of misery and wretchedness? Economically, unemployment is down and the stock market is up over the last five years, while record numbers of children of every ethnicity graduate from high school and participate in some form of higher education. America is close to achieving the long-cherished dream of energy independence, while our air and water are cleaner than at any time in a half-century – despite hysterical warnings about climate change. While some cities like Baltimore and St. Louis have seen recent spikes in violence, the national crime rate continues its long-term downward trend, saving literally hundreds of thousands of lives in the last 30 years. Divorce and abortion rates have declined steadily over the same period, and our children are far less likely to abuse dangerous drugs or participate in teenaged sex than they were a generation ago.

Public opinion polls reflect an odd schizophrenia in the national mood: while we see the state of the nation in grim and dire terms, most of us continue to feel optimistic about our own lives. A GALLUP survey from earlier in 2015 showed only 32% of respondents who were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” but a startling 85% who feel “satisfied with the way things are going in your personal life at this time.”

We believe our health care system is in crisis, but those of us – like me – who have recently gone through hospitalizations end up praising the competence and compassion of our physicians and medical institutions. By overwhelming margins, Americans express satisfaction in their marriages and children, and in the schools that educate those kids, at the same time that we deride the general state of family lives and education. Approval ratings for Congress as an institution have reached record lows, at the same time that we re-elect our own Congressmen with shocking regularity.

We seem to believe, in other words, that our fortunate personal realities constitute glaring exceptions to the general misfortune: our own spouses, doctors, schools, financial prospects and even elected representatives please us a great deal even while we lament the purportedly awful state of the society at large.

How to explain this irrational contradiction? We know a great deal about our personal status from the intimate experience of living our lives, but we assess the welfare of the world around us through the distorted lens of mass media. The messages from television, newspapers and especially the internet mislead us in alarming and negative directions; the so-called “news business” has become a bad news business. When planes land on time or businesses make honest profit, no one will hear about it from mass media. In the event of a crash, in aviation or economics, it makes for blaring headlines and riveting reports.

As someone who makes my living by reporting and analyzing the news every day, I’m struck by the lack of perspective in media views of reality. Yes, every serious crime is shocking and regrettable, but isn’t it important to note that the chances of victimization are much lower than they have been in the past? Sure, our political campaigns seem nasty and polarized, but are they truly worse than the days when prominent politicians killed or wounded one another in duels, or when Americans fought the bloodiest war in our history over an irresolvable, regional, political dispute?

I’ve argued on air and in writing that the best way to gain perspective on our present problems would be to incorporate some of the practices of Torah Judaism, even for those unable or unwilling to make a religious commitment. In particular, observing the Sabbath allows us to place the demands and distractions of daily life into a more reasonable and reassuring context. I’m better able to handle the hype and hysteria of my daily work because of the twenty-five hours a week that I’m cut off from it – no TV, no e-mail, no phone calls, even no radio. Without such intrusions and distractions, it’s far easier to enjoy the blessings of friends, family and community.

We can cherish the gift of focusing on our personal blessings rather than public predicaments. When we welcome the Sabbath every  Friday evening, we  explicitly recall both the glory of creation and the exodus from Egypt – expressing gratitude for the wonderful world the Almighty has made for each of us, as well as experiencing reliable deliverance from the slavery of the work week with its storm and stress.  We’re commanded to remember (zachor) the Sabbath day by celebrating it, at the same time that we guard (shamor) its sanctity from extraneous demands. We emphasize the all-important distinction between the urgent and the important. We live our crowded lives under the tyranny of the urgent, but the Sabbath reminds us of realities and relationships – with family, with community and with God – that count as more lastingly meaningful.

In the year ahead, that powerful perspective can help to bring our public worries more appropriately in line with our private satisfaction. May 2016 allow us all some regular escape from the trendy predilection for doom and destruction while expressing appropriate gratitude for the prodigious and distinctive blessings that we’re fortunate to share.

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Comments (14)

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  1. Ken  •  Dec 30, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Well said. Truth be told, I’m am very liberal socially, but it is a great joy to have adult rational discussion of ideas. Many commentators rely on emotionally based arguments. While I don’t always agree, I always appreciate your opinion.

  2. Debbie Groyer  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Thank you Michael for your unfailingly prudent and positive messages. I have always thought that silencing the media for a year would improve the state of our world and our well-being. The temporary suspension of freedom of the press would be more than outweighed by the benefit to our collective consciousness. Well, I can dream!

  3. Brad Greenberg  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Some of my more memorable Shabbat observances were at the home of Michael Medved. With sadness I don’t observe Shabbat, but I wish I did for the reasons you wrote about it.
    All the best,
    Brad Greenberg

  4. Jim Bird  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 11:48 am

    I think it is appropriate to be positive with upbeat discussions with the “hysteria” most Americans are seemingly trying to get our heads around, but saying the unemployment rate is low and the stock market is high or that Boehner cut the deficit by 2/3 is disingenuous at best. Ignoring the obvious is insane. If everything is great, why do you constantly state how much trouble our country will be in if Hillary is our next President. Why not “double down” on Obama’s 8 years as Hillary has promised to do?
    Like you always say “…..Obama loves America and is doing what he thinks is good for Americans.” I wish I could be this horrible with my line of work and make hundreds of millions of dollars too.

  5. Brett Carls  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    I agree with you Michael. As the country has drifted farther away over the years from it’s traditional Judeo Christian moorings, and embraced the worldly aspects of social media and affluence, a certain uneasiness has settled over the US in general. It helps not one whit that we elect so many who are devoid of leadership capabilities in reminding us that we were once and should be again people of faith. The foundation of our country was based on this idea. The further we move away from that idea, the worse we will collectively feel.

    • troon62  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      Absolutely splendid comment, Brett. You no doubt recall that James Madison predicted with such sagacity that our country would not survive without a populace committed to faith. It’s frightening to watch the younger generation growing increasingly removed from lives anchored by faith in something greater than themselves. It certainly doesn’t augur well for our future. Nevertheless, Happy 2016.

  6. Carol Cooley  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    Michael, this is a refreshing, wonderful piece of writing! I will be sharing it. You usually see things in a more optimistic vein, and I believe this is directly due to your faith. May your faith continue to deepen. I am Christian, and your Judaism and faith teaching have always blessed and continue for me! I hope your health is improving- have not heard news about your progress, so I pray the news is good. Wishing you and Diane and your family a great 2016!!! Sincerely, Mrs Carol Cooley, Chicago area

  7. Wilbur Welsh  •  Dec 31, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Your article describes the very schizophrenia I hear when I occasionally listen to your show. at times , like when you discuss the immigration/amnesty problems, you are very reasonable. Even in this article you cite how things have really improved in the last five years, yet you vilify Obama every time you mention his name. By the way, I consider you as part of “the media” and a serious contributor to the phenomena you are describing. It is as though you personally recognize the great job Obama has done but are afraid to say so on the air because of the support you seek from the far right. Like you say, people feel better about their personal situation but if they listen to Fox News, the Michael Medved Show, Hugh Hewitt, etc. all they hear is that the sky is falling, the nation is in crisis, and it is Obama’s fault. The lineup of Republican candidates for President is what makes me afraid for our country, not the record of President Obama.

    • Jim Bird  •  Jan 1, 2016 at 10:41 am

      “………the great job Obama has done…..”???? If this is the new bar for greatest, I will drink myself to death in a bar!! The lineup of Republican candidates is what makes you afraid for the country??? But the police lineup for the Democrats is now the new norm for honesty, integrity and abusing and breaking the laws and constitution of the country?!! The fact that more than 47% of voters agrees with you is truly the most frightening thing America has had to deal with. So, after Clinton #1 armed N. Korea with nukes and Obama did the same with Iran, the world’s largest terrorist state, maybe Clinton #2 can do the same with Cuba and undo what John Kennedy did, the last Democratic president that the word “greatness” can be associated with.

  8. Ron  •  Jan 1, 2016 at 3:24 am

    The short of it is: Get your head out of the sand Michael. This country is going down if we do not change our ways. I’m doing well. I have had excellent health care but it is not due to The Affordable Healthcare Act. Abortion is still happening. Our leaders are a bunch of ungodly people for the most part. The sins of men are many in our land. The practice of the Sabbath will not forgive them. I pray that God will spare us. Like in the days of Sodom and Gamorah, we need some righteous people to save this nation. If the sinful nature of this country does not cause you concern, then you do not recognize the other laws God has put forth. The New Testament explains the doing away with the old law of sin and death. I cannot control much of what effects me from government people who make unlawful regulations and illegal laws. Do you not understand that all gun control “laws” are illegal? I could go on and on. I too live in Realville. Cheers!

  9. Beano McReano  •  Jan 2, 2016 at 2:13 am

    You have your Sabbath in the Torah. We have our Sabbath in Christ. I’m still happy and looking forward not backward too.

  10. Mary Behr  •  Jan 2, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Hi, Michael. The first time I heard you on the radio, you subbed for Rush. That day was my birthday! I followed you until we moved from the area. The move was d/t family emergency. So here I am putting my life in major Sabbath, renewal. You came to mind today. I found you online, hurray! I will put extra energy in my renewal. And, I am very grateful that your health has been restored. My best to you and yours. Please convey my best to Rabbi Lapin as well. He has been a blessing to my via radio as well. I look forward to your reasoned perspective in 2016.

  11. American  •  Jan 5, 2016 at 5:13 am

    It has something to do with the fact that everything is in decline except for the national debt and interest which must be paid for it from the federal budget each year.

    As for unemployment, look at the labor participation rate and the real dollar income statistics. It’s obvious the domestic labor market is in shambles. Not counting people who’ve dropped out because they couldn’t find a job and those who are underpaid for the job they are “lucky” enough to have is disingenuous.

    About twenty more years before economic collapse followed by great social upheaval if everything stays “on track.”

    • Jim Bird  •  Jan 5, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Well stated American. The ONLY thing your average Republican voter wants from our politicians we elect is to say what you have said here ON A DAILY BASIS. ONE, JUST ONE REPUBLICAN POLITICIAN, to state simple facts where the country is headed and why it’s going their at warp speed. But they won’t. This is so insane, so maddenly simple to do! The democrats do it in the opposite direction daily, calling us disgusting and wanting to kill the environment and your babies. It is so simple to do! No one will explains why they are so silent. They know the Party is split, but they simply do nothing. Thanks again, American.

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