The Hazards Of Secondhand News

Let’s talk about a product found in virtually every American household that sometimes causes serious side effects, including anxiety, depression, delusions, and even fits of anger. You might think this product should come labeled with advice to keep it out of the reach of children.

It does not. I am talking about the news.

I have nothing against the news; I myself am a big daily consumer. My regular reading list includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, The Washington Post, Bloomberg.com and two political publications, Politico and The Hill.

But I have a reason for ingesting all this information – running a business and advising our clients requires me to stay on top of a broad range of topics – and despite the range of titles, I am selective about what gets my attention. I pay little heed to ordinary crime stories, celebrity gossip and stock market tips, for example. Most of this is noise that I cannot put to any useful purpose. I also try to get my information from sources with a variety of viewpoints to avoid living in an ideological echo chamber that only repeats what I already think I know.

Broadcast and cable news is notably absent from my regular news diet, though I do indulge in small quantities. I watch PBS’ NewsHour when I have the opportunity, and CNN, the BBC or the U.S. broadcast networks will do when I want a quick roundup of headlines with video. Bloomberg’s “Surveillance” morning broadcast (on TV with Tom Keene and Scarlet Fu, and on radio with Keene and Michael McKee) offers some of the best discussion of economics for non-economists anywhere.

Still, most of what passes for cable TV news is absent from my news diet entirely, and not merely because I am usually at work when those broadcasts are aired. I have concluded that a lot of daytime cable news programming is not just unproductive; it is downright harmful.

Fox News seems to be particularly, though not uniquely, corrosive. I say this as a registered Republican white male, who gets solicitations from the National Rifle Association that include a camo-patterned duffel bag as a premium for my paid membership. I suppose this is so I can be fully equipped as I stand my ground. I am exactly the demographic that should watch Fox News.

But I don’t, because I have seen too many people overdose on the channel and then appear to lose all sense of perspective. They start buying gold, or worse, Bitcoin. They start comparing America in our time unfavorably with America in the 1950s. Do we really want to go back to a time when being black meant being segregated, or being gay meant being closeted or hounded? One European-born Fox watcher recently said that our situation is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Was she referring to the Nuremberg Laws, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, or Kristallnacht? Don’t ask me. I don’t watch Fox News.

Over on MSNBC, the Koch Brothers are the reincarnation of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust. They control the outcome of American elections – although the results of most recent ones, especially the 2012 presidential campaign, must have disappointed them.

At CNBC, Jim Cramer will “teach you how to analyze stocks and the market like a pro,” according to the network’s website. This is truth in advertising. The pros have no idea what the market or a particular stock is going to do tomorrow, or next week or next month, and when Cramer is through with you, you won’t either. But he’ll certainly try to get you excited. This won’t be good for your investments, but it might keep his sponsors happy.

HLN (which was Headline News before they literally took the news out of it) wants to talk about whatever people are talking about, I presume because it hopes people will tune in to hear themselves talk. CNN spends its days trying to plot a course between liberal MSNBC and conservative Fox.

This is all very unhealthy, even for adults. The imperatives of TV marketing demand that every minute of every hour of every day have a “top story” and that this top story must be of breathless importance, whether it is our umpteenth federal budget spat, a Chicago snowstorm in midwinter or a devastating nuclear accident in Japan. In the same way real noise can damage our hearing, all this news-noise reduces our ability to detect the differences between what is of major and lasting importance, what is of fleeting significance and what is truly of no consequence whatever.

News-noise is even worse for kids. Fortunately, most are at school when this daily foghorn blast sweeps through American homes. But there are too many snow days, sick days and holidays for us to let our guard down. Children can’t independently assess which news really might matter to them and which does not. They are taught to rely on adults, and the adults who present the news on TV have Q ratings that make them seem particularly reliable. How are the kids supposed to know that this seeming reliability is produced by wardrobe consultants, speech coaches and dental whitening products?

It is up to us, the adults in the house, to help children put the news in perspective. Keep them away from secondhand smoke that poses as information. You don’t have to shield them from the actual news itself when it comes from reliable sources, but help them watch it. Talk to them about what it means in their lives. Let them know that the people around them in real life, not on the flat screen, are here to guide them and keep them safe. Explain how Nielsen ratings and sweeps months, not a full moon, can turn newscasters into destructive monsters.

Or just turn off the TV, go outside and do something truly fun and rewarding. If not for your own sake, then for the children.

About Larry M. Elkin 553 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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