To listen or not to listen: My three minute return to the land of news

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I have a shocking confession to make.  When Obama won the election in 2008, I made a conscious decision to tune out.  After months of checking the internet compulsively for the latest polling numbers, I decided that I was done with the news.  I had helped in a very small way to elect a president I felt I could largely trust and I decided that I didn’t really care what happened next.  I remember that election night vividly, hearing on NPR that the scales had tipped for Obama and crying tears of joy and relief.  And that may have been the last time I listened to NPR until two days ago.

It’s horrifying, isn’t it?  I would find this same behavior in my students absolutely deplorable.  What kind of a good, responsible citizen decides to stop paying attention to what’s going on in the world?  And yet I did.  And now it’s been four years.  Four years in which my only avenue to what’s happening in the world has been through Facebook.  If my friends aren’t posting about it, then I largely don’t know it happened.

Before my exile from the land of news, I was, like all good liberals, an avid devotee of All Things Considered and The New York Times online.  It was a sad thing for me that the local NPR channel out of Louisville didn’t come in well in downtown Madison.  Before, I felt that even with my devotion to these news outlets, I was still woefully uninformed.  There were so many things I didn’t know about.  I made idle promises to myself to do better at keeping up with the BBC world news.  What was happening in India?  In Rwanda?  It was sad that I didn’t know.  Now, I don’t even take the local paper.  Not because I don’t want to know what’s happening in Madison, but because it would be hard to avoid all the other headlines about events outside of Madison.

When you stop paying any attention to the news, you find yourself facing decisions about whether you should fake your way through a conversation or just admit you have no idea what everyone else is talking about.  Sometimes I nod along and smile.  You can figure out a lot from context, and there’s not a lot of new things that happen in the world, despite the existence of a vast industry convincing us that things are constantly changing in ways which are crucial to our very existence.  Some people like to stay up on the latest murder or abduction.  Others are likely to be grousing about what the Republicans or the conservatives have done or haven’t done.  I can see they’re outraged.  I know that if I knew more, I probably would be, too.  But I don’t really feel the need for any more outrage in my life.  It’s enough that my stepdaughter walks past the same pile of stuff on the steps 5 times without carrying it up to her room.  I almost have a chance of doing something about that, slight as that chance might be.

A couple days ago, I got in my car to head down to Louisville, a 2 hour round-trip from Madison.  I had my trusty audiobook with me, but I thought, why not?  Why not give NPR a try again?  I used to love NPR.  All of my friends who still watch the news are always talking about the story they heard on NPR.  About Downton Abbey.  Or a new novel.  Surely it was time to re-enter the world of people who know about things.  Interesting and important things.

I heard a very amusing musical group performing.  And a fascinating review of a new novel.  And then the local news told me about Mitch McConnell vowing to give President Obama a hard time about his stand on insurance and birth control.  Though a majority of Americans support medical insurance coverage of birth control, McConnell felt President Obama’s compromise of allowing individual insurance providers to decide whether or not to cover birth control was not enough.  McConnell vowed to fight this compromise as an infringement on our first amendment right to freedom of religion.  I turned the radio off and spent the rest of the trip listening to an audiobook about the gunfight at the OK corral.

This is not a post about Mitch McConnell or birth control or the 1st amendment.  It is enough to say that this very tiny piece of news I allowed into my sheltered existence made me feel…what’s the word?  Angry.  And here’s the ugly truth about my 4 year sabbatical from the news:  less anger = more happiness.

Back in college during my Ani DiFranco phase, I was right there with her:

If you’re not angry
You’re just stupid or you don’t care
How else can you react
When you know something’s so unfair

Exactly!  Right on!  I’m pissed off and I’m not going to take it anymore!  And then what?  I grew up?  I got married?  I got a job?  I got tenure? I sold out?  Maybe the answer is yes to all of those things.

I didn’t quit the news because of cynicism.  In fact, I quit at a moment of incredible optimism.  I never, ever believed I would live to see a black man in the White House.  And then it happened.  And I took those pictures that floated around the internet during the election, of Obama with the text, “Everyone chill out.  I’ve got this,” to heart.  I decided to take my hand off the wheel, to the extent that my hand was ever on any wheel to begin with.

I still believe that one person can make a difference.  I still believe that I do.  I just don’t particularly feel like I need to watch or listen to the news in order to do so.  And sometimes I feel like following the news might actually get in the way of my ability to make a difference in the world.  It takes a lot of time, for one thing.  I shudder to imagine how much time in a week I spend on Facebook; imagine if I added trolling internet news sites.

And watching the news takes energy.  For me, it creates rage, which is a sure-fire energy suck.  And not just at Mitch McConnell.  I get angry at NPR for having a show that treats the biological nature of race as a question open for debate, despite the fact that most of the experts on this subject have long dismissed any biological basis for racial categories.  I get angry at The New York Times for the ways in which they allow sloppy evolutionary arguments to permeate their coverage of what I otherwise would consider social science research.  I haven’t been a watcher of the local television news since I lived with my parents, but when I visit them, it’s on, and that might the very worst.  When I watch the local television news, I mostly think, “Why do I need to know anything you’re telling me right now?”  Every now and then, I remember getting a small slice of information that was actually useful or interesting–mostly from NPR.  But there was a lot you had to wade through to get there.  Why shouldn’t I just read a book, which are high on the interesting, useful and (something that’s almost always lacking in the news) complexity?

Here is a short list of all the things I might do instead of reading the news.  I can spend money at local stores in my town.  I can serve on the board of a nonprofit agency.  I can support our local music scene.  I can help do research for social service agencies.  I can give money to organizations.  I can give money to people who I believe are trying to do good things in my community even if they’re not part of an organization.  I can try to treat everyone I encounter in a way that acknowledges their basic humanity, even if they annoy me or look weird or shady or not particularly normal.  I can listen to my students.  I can really listen to my students.  I can try to help my students think about their own responsibility to the world and whether or not watching the news is an important part of it.

None of these things make me angry.  Four years into my news-free life, there’s a part of me that still feels really bad.  There’s a part of me that feels irresponsible and lazy and selfish.  It might be the same part of me that worried idly about going to hell years after I stopped believing in the good old-fashioned, Southern Baptist God.  Some part of me feels bad.  But not bad enough to start watching the news again.

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