Going Cold Turkey on The News

One day last April, it might have been April Fool’s, although it didn’t turn out that way, I decided to stop following The News. Not what was happening in the world, but The News about it.

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

Up to that day, I regularly ingested The News from familiar sources for someone in my line of work, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Yahoo, Slate.com, the Huffington Post, All Things Considered on NPR, the NewsHour on PBS, plus whatever else I got pointed to by a link or a friendly tip. Every once in a while I went overseas, virtually, for a different point of view, but mostly I stuck close to home.

Until last April when I gave it up, just like that, cold turkey, vowing not to scan a headline or let a lead-in get past the first few words before switching it off. I deleted news outlet bookmarks from my browsers to keep myself from being tempted to just this once see what was on The News. I was like the smoker removing every trace of the habit, throwing away lighters and ashtrays and changing my routine so as to avoid the familiar triggers. For a week or so I even kept a log in which I noted my being aware of wanting to go online and check The News, how did I feel, what I did instead.

I told myself it was an experiment, that I just wanted to see what it would be like. It didn’t have to be forever. One day at a time. I could always go back. I reassured myself because I was expecting it to be hard.

Except that it wasn’t hard at all, which surprised me, and even more that in the months since that day I have not missed it once. I don’t even think about it. Really.

When I tell people that I don’t follow The News anymore, some will look at me with a mixture of disbelief and longing that says something like, “Oh, God, I wish I could do that,” as if it were simply impossible. Others nod and say they don’t follow the news either, and at first I thought that was the same as what I was doing, until I asked and discovered it was not, so perhaps I should explain.

The most immediate reason for my giving up The News was how it feels to watch news that isn’t really new at all. Much of what passes for Serious News, for example, consists of what powerful people say about things that haven’t happened or what they or someone else has already said about that, or what idiots other powerful people are for not agreeing to things happening in the way they think they should. When it’s not the powerful people speaking, it is commentators talking about them and what they did or didn’t say or might say tomorrow or, especially, did not do that might have made a positive difference for someone besides themselves and people like them.

Following this day after day is like being subjected to reports about someone’s self-destructive behavior—today he cut himself, today he accidentally set his apartment on fire, today he lost his job by coming in drunk yet again, today he crashed his car into a tree while talking on the phone . . . . and you know there is nothing you can do about it. After a while what comes up is something much deeper than boredom, a kind of numbing of the soul.

The rest of what is said on The News is ‘Analysis’ in which experts ask the wrong questions about the wrong things, all but guaranteeing that what is happening will go on happening, which takes me from boredom to anger and even rage depending on the topic. That Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at President Bush? I know how he feels.

  • A long string of white men take guns into public places and shoot down everyone in sight, but hardly anyone on The News even asks much less digs down into the question of what’s up with white men and guns.
  • The world economy just about tanks and tens of millions of people lose their jobs, pensions, and homes, but outside of Bill Moyers and Democracy Now no one on The News shows any interest in how capitalism works as a system and for whom, and why does this keep happening and how can a corporation be too big to fail or jail and why does everyone seem to suffer—people of color and working-class whites in particular—except the ruling class that makes it all happen in the first place?
  • Climate scientists keep telling us the Earth is warming faster than their worst projections, but you won’t hear about it on The News except for the occasional mention of powerful people talking about all the ways they’re not going to do anything about it. How many species became extinct today? How much closer did the Maldives nation come to disappearing? What is global capitalism’s interest in our doing nothing? None of that makes it into The News, as if it isn’t happening at all.
  • The ‘scandal’ of men’s sexual violence in the military provokes no questions about why the male population would produce such an epidemic in the first place, except for talk about recruitng the ‘right’ kind of man (even though sexual violence rates in the military are similar to those everywhere else) and a lack of proper discipline and enforcement of the rules. Violence as a means of control, cultural definitions of masculinity and manhood—you’d think The News had never heard of them.

When the media aren’t telling us what to think about the issues, they’re telling us which issues to think about, including all the things we’re supposed to pay attention to that aren’t really issues at all, from the sex lives of politicians to parents who leave small children locked in cars on sunny days to criminals who make stupid mistakes that get them caught. All of it presented in a breathless frenzy of now this and now that, one bit of ‘news’ after another, one more thing we didn’t know.

Rather than let my mind rot or scream and throw my shoe at the television, I turned off The News and disconnected from The News on the web.

The first thing I noticed was the quiet in my mind. I didn’t see it coming so it took me a while to recognize what it was. A stillness, a lower level of chatter. I slept better, dreamt more. I began to notice things like the color of the sky. I became more calm inside myself. I was less irritable with drivers who went by with cell phones held to their ears. All, it seems, because I was no longer carrying on a useless one-way conversation with The News, beating my head against the wall. I had also stopped living as an addict anticipating the next fix. I checked email less often. I even stopped playing solitaire on my iPad—the day when I stopped following The News was the last day I even thought of it, which is, I think, remarkable in itself.

I still care about what is happening, of course, being a human being and a citizen, a father and grandfather, a writer whose work has everything to do with what goes on and why and with what effect. When I heard that the Boston Marathon was bombed, I wanted to know who did it and why and about the people who’d been hurt. When the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage and affirmative action, I wanted to know what they said and what it meant. And when someone told me about Susan Sarandon saying she thought ‘feminist’ was an old-fashioned thing to call yourself, I found the article online. Sometimes I tune in on Friday evenings to the PBS NewsHour where David Brooks and Mark Shields have an intelligent conversation about things that matter. It’s reassuring just to hear an actual conversation, even for just a little while.

It is a challenge to be aware of what I really need to know without getting sucked into The News, and I don’t know how to do it yet. Probably some combination of relying on friends and Odysseus tying himself to the mast.

But there is more to leaving The News than staying in touch with daily events. There is also a shift to what is going on deeper down. There are larger things unfolding in the human story than can be tracked from one event to another. There is a bigger picture, a larger field of view that Bill Moyers mentioned in a recent interview on Charlie Rose. It is not enough to be aware of events as they are happening. There is also understanding why, putting them in context, connecting the dots to see how everything fits together in a comprehensive whole. Men’s violence and the excesses of capitalism and political gridlock and dysfunction and racism and economic injustice and terrorism and war and human suffering and the catastrophe of climate change are not separate ‘events’ to be reported by The News. They are part of something much larger, a systemic process that needs to be understood as such if we are going to have any say at all about what is coming.

As for me, the experiment continues. It is September, my sixth month without The News and yet, if anything, I am more aware and more present to a deeper reality of what is happening both close to home and far away, more mindful, more thoughtful, not less. I read books, I think, I try to listen, but like everything else, I don’t know where this will lead. Stay tuned for more on how it goes.


If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Letting Go of Despair and Hope.”

2 responses to “Going Cold Turkey on The News

  1. nlbroussard Monday, September 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I also stopped watching the news some time ago. Also, television. My main goal was to avoid commercials at all costs. It is amazing how you never know what you don’t have or need until someone else tells you. It is amazing how the mind works when you remove the clutter of media. Your mind is finally able to “connect the dots.”

  2. Suzanne Levesque Saturday, August 27, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Mr. Johnson – is there an update on your experiment?

    I stopped watching and reading the news in 1986. I was a document researcher on a legal team involved in a highly publicized judicial inquiry. I was floored by the difference between what I knew as the document researcher and what the media chose to report. Up until then I had respect for the media, believed in their role as the 5th estate and naively thought reporting the news was a noble calling. I learned that it is impossible for a reader to distinguish the lies from the truth in any media story and a couple of paragraphs or a 10 seconds soundbite can’t do justice to complex issues and stories. I stopped watching TV entirely three years ago to avoid commercials and because there’s really nothing good (i.e, that feeds my mind and soul) to watch. When I want to know about something (e.g., the bursting of the housing bubble) I read books.

    I believe that staying away from news and TV has paradoxically made me more resilient to stress on the one hand and more sensitive to violence and human tragedy on the other. However, there is no shortage of people who will feel compelled to tell you “what’s going on” even when you ask them not to.

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