Who Needs AOL's Creepy "Good News" Site?

This week AOL News launched a Sears-sponsored news site that only reports good news. It's called GNN, or Good News Network. Is the world really so dark that we need our online news filtered through a Lexapro-colored lens?

Self-filtering news coverage isn't a new phenomenon; we all choose our news outlets based on our political or geographic biases. But the notion that online news—which has popularized because of its comprehensive, digressive, real-time nature—could be rendered purblind to all things unfortunate is, well, sort of unfortunate. 

But maybe I'm a simple cynic, and I don't see just how depressing our mainstream news outlets are. So I subjected three major sites to a "good news analysis" to see if they offer as little hope as GNN's very existence would imply. Then I subjected GNN to the same criteria, and was surprised to find that GNN offered an aftertaste of doom that the others lacked.

First CNN: There's plenty of scary stuff here; influenza outbreak is "not stoppable" according to one headline, and it seems that the death of "Tommy the cat," whomever that feline might be, is "linked to serial killer." Also sad: a family business hit by recession, a guard shot by a white supremacist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and something about the vandalism of dead bodies. Gross.


But look what else there is: news about the end of President Ahmadinejad's term, the fight against a rare disease called dystonia, news about the fancy new digital TV switch-over, tickers that report the markets are up an average of 1% today, and for some added levity, a bit about Stephen Colbert's USO trip to Baghdad. Oh, and apparently there are now officially one million words in the English language, which is cool. The world according to CNN has problems, foreign and domestic, but there appear to be solutions, too.

The New York Times has some of the same ill events as CNN—the flu pandemic, the museum gunman, and so on. It also has a piece about municipal bunglings involving New York's emergency services, and news of a roiling political drama in the New York senate. Then again, the lede is a piece by Louise Story about how the government put pressure on Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch late last year—a solid piece of reporting that adds transparency, however retrograde, to the black-box bailout process. That's progress. Progress is good.

So too is news that President Obama has a good chance of remaking our health care system, according to former President Clinton; whether or not you believe single-payer health care to be the solution, it's good to know that our government might be capable of experimenting with new solutions instead of resigning us to the inadequacies of the old. And while the World Bank reports a shrink in the world economy this year, growth in developed countries, the Times says, could resume as soon as next year. The paper also reports news of new Senate regulations on the tobacco industry—always good—and some rather sanguine op-eds in the top-left corner of the page. Today is a good day.


But to look at Good News Now gives one the impression that misfortune is somehow the universal norm, and any slight victory over it—no matter how pathetic—should be celebrated. The lede is a story about a woman who was forced to give birth alone after being turned down by two hospitals in one day. The fact that the baby (and mom) survived is incidental to this story; we have a health care system that would allow this? Not. Good.

Equally saddening is the headline that "Americans Keep Giving Despite Recession." If you've been reading the normal news sites, you know that real unemployment could surmount Great Depression levels, that foreclosures in five states are threatening to undermine home values everywhere, that bankruptcies are peaking, and that layoffs are announced by the tens of thousands every month. Yet GNN's headline seems to suggest that Americans still haven't accepted that they're over-leveraged, broke and insolvent. These donations are from individual givers, not mega-millionaires or institutions. Why aren't these people saving?

Another story about some valuable paintings left at Goodwill in Toronto seems to have dubious karmic implications; obviously the person who "anonymously discarded" them had no idea of their worth. I guess found money is good news, unless you're the one who lost it.

Good News Now

Other GNN stories: two senior citizens who got married because they admitted that "each of us was living a lonely life," a grandma who finally finished her GED (?), and a baby that survived ejection from a car accident in Florida. Ahem. At least the Kenmore 4-Burner Gas Grill at Sears is only $280. That's auspicious news. Right?

Should AOL re-think its approach to GNN, the Web company might do well to consider that "good" news is not necessarily lobotomized news; thinking people can acknowledge that problems have solutions, that bad situations expire, and that evildoers are not the majority. And that right now, we don't need $280 grills, no matter how sunny the news might seem.

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  • Tim Johnson

    I can't say the idea of a "good news" offer from AOL is something that gets me all warm and runny, but Dannen's critique is creepier. The comments about the article on Americans continuing to give during the recession betrays the cynicism behind his rant. A generous spirit and a positive attitude are part of what will bring an end to the recession, and I for one, would feel ashamed of myself if I let my fear about the economy keep me from helping my fellow man. If I actually didn't have it to give, that's another matter, of course, but implicit in the whole discussion is that these givers DO have it to give, which is pretty much the very definition of good news, if I'm not mistaken.

    As for the gas grill ad, the admonition to NOT advertise consumer products in a recession is, well, goofy. And more than a little surprising to find in the pages of Fast Company.

    It's not "smart" to be cynical or condescending; it's just cynical and condescending.

    Tim Johnson, President
    Coactive Brand Lab
    Brand Designer, Marketing and Communications Expert


  • Robert Shea

    Not the funniest bit of flotsam from Aol. Their idiotic polls on political subjects, for example, reveal a majority of their AOL poll takers and commenters to be right-wing idiots. Of course, that's redundant.

  • Justin Cina

    BTW, I agree with most of the above, and when I said "just as much BS bad news as it does substantive good news" I meant WAY MORE BS bad news as it does substantive good news...

  • Justin Cina

    First, that Philip Nowak comment below is hilarious. But second, the truth is, YES, we need a news system like this, and many more...Your point is well taken that the AOL site may not be hitting the right stories, and furthermore that "bad situations expire," but your survey is quite limited and unscientific. Standard news covers just as much BS bad news as it does substantive good news. Not that this will ever happen but shouldn't the value of the news be measured by its net effect? The aggregated good that is occurring as a result of many individuals, companies and NGOs out there, never mind the "democratic" population of Iran, is astounding, and impressive, and largely lost on the news which is all consuming of death and destruction. There is a lot more here, but the bottom line is, a broader survey of news, from national to local, reveals a proclivity for the morbid, but why?

  • Ralph Hall

    I suppose if you find the idea of single-payer health care a positive thing, and that you do not see even the prospect of this a nightmare, that could be a positive thing. There isn't much about funny that I have ever seen by Colbert - perhaps the author was gunning for humor in this piece as well? I was about to say "Heaven help us if people stop donating time and resources..." but I suppose that is exactly how Heaven already does help us. The tone and idea presented in this article for me was about as sad as the standard negative headlines. In Soviet Russia much of the power of the regime was created by fear, which was maintained by isolating and squelching alternate messages. If I thought maybe things were going wrong with the government, I dared not say it - after all no one else seemed to be. In this case I would flip it around: if, despite the craziness in the news people in my neighborhood still get along reasonably well, my kids are getting a good education at a public institution, the religious organization to which I belong (and others like it) is growing and helping hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. Getting this message out can do nothing but help our society. We waste so much time and energy on gloom and doom. We choose to focus on "what aweful thing is happening today" rather than "what can I do today to improve my contribution to my family and those with whom I come in contact." Good for AOL (fan - technologically speaking - though I may not be) for working at communicating more of the good things going on in our world.

  • Gen Hendrey

    I think GNN is a perfectly good idea. It seems awfully jaded to single the site out like this. I just spent a few minutes browsing GNN and I didn't find anything creepy there. Some of the stories were general-interest -- neither happy nor unhappy (e.g., the rare-lobster story). Other stories were happy, or ended happily. It would be creepier, in my opinion, to try to run a news site that doesn't even acknowledge any hardship in life. The world is so connected now; there's no way anyone could even read every available news story on any given day, anyway. So what's so wrong with reading the stories that don't end tragically? Life comes with hardship; most people personally have plenty of it. It's unrealistic to think that we could, or should, feel obliged to follow every painful story that appears on the news. The news is so often gruesome and heart wrenching. It is okay not to look. It doesn't mean one is denying reality. Some people can hear terrible news about a stranger, and take it in stride. But other people honestly feel a lot of pain when they hear such news. For those of us with, let's call it "a gentle heart," it is painful to watch one heartbreaking story after another. If one has become inured to the reports of tragedy plastered across most news outlets, GNN may seem bizarre or hokey. But to news-followers who cried this week when they saw video reports from the burning preschool in Mexico or the interview with the 11-year-old son of the guard murdered at the Holocaust museum, GNN could be a great idea.

  • Sara Davis

    One my igoogle feeds was TIME, but eventually I deleted it. They are addicted to what I call "disaster grabber" headlines - particularly for their feeds. For whatever reason, humans love to revel in the negative. News publishers know this. So whatever the story, if you add some taste of the disaster, it becomes more attractive and people will watch or read. To me this is proof that we have become a lobotmized society. We don't look for information, we look for fear and drama. That is why even GNN uses "Despite Recession". I imagine those folks are going to struggle against centuries of ingrained knowledge that people read about fear. And if they read happy, it should be a happy ending - ie overcoming fear. News, like fiction, has to be interesting or we don't read.

    When I am scanning headlines deciding if I am interested in reading more, I prefer facts not drama. I like to decide for myself what I think and not have my emotion decided by the headline before I even read article.

    Same story different headlines
    Morning Mix: Switch from Analog to Digital is Today - NEWSWEEK
    DTV Switch Is On: Millions To Lose Analog Signals - INFORMATIONWEEK
    Winners and losers in an all-digital TV world - CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
    US households unprepared for digital switch-over - ABC
    Stations Turn Off Analog Signals as Digital TV Deadline Arrives - NY TIMES
    Confusion expected as analog TV broadcasts end - ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Sean Genovese

    Thinking people also read all the words and investigate before spouting off. The woman who was turned down by two hospitals lives in England, where they have a "remade" socialized healthcare system like the one President Obama wants for us. So yes, we too will soon have a healthcare system that would allow this. Maybe you should rethink what you want our government experimenting with.

  • Kathlene Sage

    Good to see someone is attempting to bends the minds of a now exhausted, depressed and nearly suppressed America to look at the bright side of something. When you live a positive life, positive things happen. It's a nice therapy, and it could be nice to someone to go somewhere in particular to find good news (no matter how mind bending it is) instead of digging, gnawing and scratching to find it. I'm for (almost) anything that may make somebody's day a little brighter. ;o)