presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
March 26, 2023
When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. - Charles Sanders Peirce
One of the things I learned growing up in Quincy is that news happens somewhere else.
Years later, I heard ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne capture the experience perfectly with a twist on an old sports cliche. On paper, he said, it was obvious who would win the upcoming game. “But football games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside TV sets.”
That was my experience of the news: It all happened inside a TV. The images on the screen might be of DC or New York or some city on the other side of the world, like Saigon or Tel Aviv. Occasionally they might show a small town somewhere. But almost never this small town. Because news happens somewhere else.
After I left Quincy I lived in a number of places, and then in 1996 I moved to New Hampshire. I got there too late for that year’s presidential primary. But in the 2000 cycle, I began to understand the magic of living in the land where presidential campaigns begin: Big name politicians wander the streets trying to get your attention.
Most of that cycle, I was a day late. I’d read in the local newspaper that Vice President Gore had been shaking hands in a restaurant a few blocks from my apartment. Or Senator Bradley had talked to 15 voters in somebody’s back yard.
But I did manage to see John McCain, because everybody saw John McCain. He was everywhere. No venue was too small and no question too trivial. The man was amazing.
On the night of the primary, the big news was McCain’s landslide victory over Governor Bush, who had spent a lot of money on advertising, but almost never let ordinary people touch him or talk to him.
So I’m watching returns come in on TV, and they cut over to a reporter at the McCain victory party, where excitement was building and the candidate was expected to appear soon. It was in a hotel about three miles away, so I said to Deb, “Let’s go.” And we did. We walked in the door, elbowed our way into the crowd, and got there in time to hear McCain’s victory speech.
Some of you may have been watching that night, and you may have thought that speech was happening inside a TV set. But it wasn’t. I was on the floor, and when I looked up there it was: news.
The next day, all the candidates and cameramen packed up and forgot about us for another three years. But in 2003, the cycle was starting up again. And this time I was determined to do it right. I found the web page where the Manchester Union Leader kept track of which candidates were going to be where, and I decided I was going to see everybody. Best of all, I was going to see them early, when even the front-runners would be begging for attention.
And while I was at it, I thought I’d participate in the latest trend on the internet, and invite my friends to join me on a vicarious journey. Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist yet, but I planned to write up an account of every candidate I saw and email it to anybody I thought might be interested.
My project began on April 3, 20 years ago next week, which I now regard as the anniversary of my blogging career. John Kerry was speaking at the public library in Peterborough, about 45 minutes away. His speech was full of exactly the kinds of information an undecided voter needed: He told us about himself and his qualifications, talked about what he wanted to do as president and how he would be different from President Bush.
And then he opened the floor for questions. I had always wondered whether the questions at events like this are real or planted, and I found out: I got to ask Kerry about his vote for the Patriot Act, which I doubt he wanted to discuss. He gave an answer that I didn’t totally agree with, but I could respect it. And that was the general impression I wrote to my friends: Kerry probably wouldn’t be my first choice, but I could be OK with him as president.
When I had envisioned this project, I thought the only value my emails would add was immediacy: My friends could read about the same events in newspapers, but the accounts would seem more real coming from someone they actually knew. I didn’t expect to see completely different events from the ones that got reported nationally.
But I did.
You see, somewhere in the middle of his talk, Kerry made a quip. The Bush administration had used the phrase “regime change” to describe its goal in Iraq, and Kerry turned that around, saying that we needed some regime change right here in America.
It was a cute line, but there wasn’t much substance to it, so I ignored it. Rush Limbaugh didn’t. Somehow Rush heard that line and told his radio audience how unpatriotic he thought it was. Several Republican congressmen picked up that attack: This decorated Vietnam veteran was unpatriotic because he had characterized an incumbent president losing an election as “regime change”. So now it was on. Kerry had to strike back, saying that he didn’t need lessons in patriotism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. It went back and forth for days. So if you heard anything about the Peterborough speech, that quip was what you heard. But if you had been in the room, it would have gone right past you.
Then I heard Howard Dean speak in a room above my local brewpub. The media had been describing Dean as the antiwar candidate. And yes, he said a few things against the Iraq War. But mainly he talked about his record as governor of Vermont, with particular emphasis on healthcare and education. The next morning, though, the major newspapers only quoted what he said about the war, as if that had been his whole speech.
It happened again and again: I saw one event, and then I read about a completely different one.
I had trouble wrapping my mind around what I was seeing. I felt like the campaign speeches were being covered badly, but it didn’t match any recognizable model of bad news coverage. The articles weren’t lying. No one was being misquoted. The omissions didn’t seem to favor one candidate over another. But I was coming at these events from the point of view of a voter trying to decide what kind of president these candidates would make. And apparently, that made me different from just about everyone else who was covering the campaign.
My project had started out as a lark, a fun thing to do and share with my friends. But as I got into it, I started to think that it was actually important. And that was my first step towards becoming a blogger.
Now, the theme of this talk, other than me getting nostalgic, is what twenty years of blogging has taught me. And so the first lesson I’ll pick out goes back to that beginning: The media doesn’t have to lie in order to do you a disservice.
Journalists may report what they’re seeing and hearing with perfect accuracy. But if they’re coming to those events with a mindset that isn’t your mindset, and if they’re trying to answer questions that aren’t your questions, then they’re not going to tell you what you really want to know. Nobody has to be a villain in this story, but your interests are not being served. So no matter how many articles you read, and how much time you put into following the issues you care about, you can’t be sure you’re being well informed.
This lesson sits in the background of my Weekly Sift blog every Monday. Because the hardest work I do on the Sift actually is not gathering the information or crafting the text. The hardest work is discernment: I’m trying to be a responsible citizen of a democracy, and I assume the same about my readers. Given that basic mindset, what issues should I — and by projection, you — being paying attention to? And of all the things that were said and done this week relating to those issues, which ones are genuinely important?
From the primary campaign, I branched out. That November, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that same-sex couples had a right to marry. The news media focused on reactions to the ruling — who was for it or against it — but I wanted to know what the judge had said. I found the text of the opinion, and discovered that it was easier to understand than I had expected. So I wrote about it.
Periodically, I was noticing things about the Iraq War or the War on Terror that weren’t getting the attention I thought they deserved. So I wrote about them too.
Distribution by email turned into a web page anyone could access, and then in 2005 became a blog. I got into the habit of starting each week by posting a list of articles I had found worthwhile the previous week. Later I began adding short comments on those articles, and in 2008, I spun that Monday-morning summary off into its own blog, The Weekly Sift. I’ve posted something there almost every Monday since.
So that’s the second thing to learn from my experience: Once you start something, you never know where it’s going to go. Something that begins as a lark may turn into a project that lasts 20 years.
And when you do something for 20 years, the world changes around you. When I started blogging, the problem I saw was that a dominant media narrative might be out of touch with what ordinary people need to know. And I saw the internet as a tool for fixing that problem.
So along with much better known writers like Ezra Klein, Digby, Josh Marshall, and Amanda Marcotte, I became part of the movement that made independent blogs more influential. Then came Facebook, Tik Tok, podcasts, and social media as we have come to know it. And now we have the opposite problem, which is arguably worse: people can create echo chambers that responsible journalism never penetrates. And they can support each other in believing whatever they want to believe, independent of the facts.
So today, if you want to believe that your candidate won an election he actually lost by seven million votes, or that a vaccine that has saved millions of lives is part of a sinister plot to control you, you can. Maybe the people trying to save the world from climate change are actually conspiring to enslave us all in a global socialist dictatorship. Who can say? There is no Truth to be reported. There’s only what you want to believe, and how many people you can find who agree with you.
What’s even more disturbing to me is that so much of the rhetoric that justifies that disinformation sounds like what I was saying 20 years ago: You can’t always believe what you’re told. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. You need to look behind the curtain and do your own research.
In some ways I feel like the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry. In the first movie, he’s a police detective who refuses to be bound by procedural niceties that let guilty people go free. But in the second, he sees what happens when that attitude goes too far. This time, the villains he has to track down are a cabal of cops who take it on themselves to assassinate anyone they identify as a bad guy. Late in that film Harry says what to me is the most memorable line of the whole series: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
And so today, as the internet takes away the power of experts in all fields to make us look at truths we’d rather ignore, we all need know our limitations. I can write about anything, but I’m not a universal expert. I’m not a climate scientist or an epidemiologist or a military strategist. My life experience doesn’t tell me much about being Black or female or poor or trans. The world is full of people who know things I don’t. Important things. True things. And so, over the years, the Sift has had to become more balanced: It’s not just about what to doubt, but also who to trust, and what I believe we can rely on.
The final and most important lesson I want to draw this morning centers on an issue that never comes up explicitly in the Sift, but hovers constantly in the background. The roots of this actually go back further than 20 years.
In the spring of 2000, CNN was intensely following several stories that had little to do with my daily life, but that I got hooked on: A court was deciding whether to break up Microsoft. Elian Gonzalez’s mother had drowned bringing him to the United States, and now his father in Cuba wanted him back. There were a couple of other major stories that, truthfully, I can’t even remember now. But following them took up a huge amount of my time, not just watching reports on them, but also arguing in my head with people who took the other side of those issues.
So one day I was walking through a park next to the Nashua River, while in my mind I raged against some wrongheaded person I had just seen on TV. And I was miserable, in that particular way that I get when I’m afraid my side is going to lose an argument that we really deserve to win. (Maybe you know that feeling.)
And then something happened. A theist might say that God’s grace shone down on me for a moment. But whatever caused it, my consciousness suddenly took a step backwards and I got a longer perspective. And I began to laugh at myself. Because here I was on a beautiful spring day, in a lovely spot, at a moment when my life overall was going pretty well, and I was miserable.
I was miserable in that unique way that addicts are miserable. I was filled with anxiety and tension and fear and rage — and a yearning for relief from those feelings. But I was looking for relief in something that was actually going to make it all worse: more news coverage. The latest details on those stories, more talking heads arguing about them — that’s what I felt like I needed. It was crazy.
So I went cold turkey on the news for a couple weeks, and I did indeed get better. I was once again able to experience the ups and downs of life as they came, without an ever-present background anxiety, and a desperate grasping after experiences that would make that anxiety worse.
But of course, ignoring the news is not an answer either, any more than it’s an answer for an alcoholic to live the rest of his life in a rehab center. I am a voting citizen in a democracy, and I live in a society that faces real issues of justice and injustice. Closing my eyes to everything bigger than my personal life might be necessary from time to time, but long term it can’t be the right response.
So there’s one central question that always hangs in the background of The Weekly Sift: What is a right relationship to the news?
Over time, the central mission of the Weekly Sift, at least as I see it, has become modeling that right relationship — staying aware of the news, thinking about it, even reacting emotionally to it at times, but not sliding into a destructive obsession with it, or letting it depress me to the point that I can’t enjoy my personal life.
A lot of that right relationship has to do with pace. And that’s why I stay disciplined about keeping the Sift weekly rather than interrupting your life with updates whenever something happens. Because you ought to think about the news regularly, but you don’t need to be thinking about it all the time. If you are thinking about it all the time, particularly if you’re thinking about it in an anxious, needy way that makes you keep turning on your TV or picking up your phone thinking “What’s new? What’s new? What’s new?” — that’s a sign of addiction. Back up. Go walk in the sunshine. The world can survive without you for a few days.
Even weekly is too frequent for many issues, so you’ll notice that I don’t try to cover every issue every week. I don’t write about racism every week. I don’t write about climate change. It’s not that those issues aren’t important, but they’re playing out over decades, and the struggle against them is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to keep tabs on those issues, and if you think of yourself as an activist, you should probably review your strategy occasionally: Are you doing enough? Is your work effective? What might you do differently?
Having that conversation with yourself several times a year is probably healthy. But if you’re having it several times a day, you’re probably just driving yourself nuts. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb for thinking about the news: Thinking deeply about an issue now and then is generally better than rehashing the same few thoughts over and over.
Once you start thinking about the news as a possible source of addiction, you may begin to notice how that addiction works. One of the main mechanisms for getting us hooked is through speculation. Once you believe that you know what’s going to happen next, good or bad, then you have to keep checking to see whether it has happened. If you anticipate something hopeful, then you are plagued by the fear that it won’t happen. And if you anticipate something fearful, you still keep hoping that it won’t happen. Either way, you feel like you need to know.
The business model of the news media relies on keeping you hooked, so they do their best to feed speculation. Imagine a news anchor saying:“Nothing much happened today, so you can take some time off from the news. Watch a movie, tend your garden, call an old friend. You can check back tomorrow.”
Of course they’re not going to say that. If nothing much happened today, then they need to keep you focused on all the things that might happen soon. Important things. Scary things. Things that might give you the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. So you should feel about them, yearn for them, fear them.
Getting ahead of the news can make sense if you need to be taking preemptive action or preparing for a quick response. If there’s a bill in the legislature, maybe you need to call your representative about it now, rather than waiting to see if it passes. If a change in government policy might hurt a certain group of people, maybe you should be thinking ahead about how you’ll help those people.
But most of the speculation we hear isn’t like that. It’s a pure “I want to know what’s going to happen.” And the people telling you what’s going to happen typically don’t know.
Take a Trump indictment, for example. All this past week, the media kept us on edge. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. Today — no, not today. Tomorrow then. These are the charges you can expect. Or maybe those. And his supporters will riot. Or they won’t.
And what good has any of that speculating done us? How are we better off than the people who have been withholding their attention until something actually happens? Think about the hours we could have been spending appreciating life.
In conclusion, I want to emphasize that no one else can tell you whether you have a healthy relationship to the news. It’s a matter for your own introspection and discernment. There’s no number of hours you should or shouldn’t be spending. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether or not you can pass some current-events test.
There are really only two questions to focus on. First, what role do you want to be playing in our society and culture? Do you see yourself as an activist, as someone who helps in some way, large or small, in shaping opinion and plotting the course of our democracy? Are you well enough informed to play the role you see for yourself?
Second, how is your experience of the news affecting your experience of life? Does staying informed make you feel more competent and effective? Or is it filling you with anxiety or depression or guilt? If it’s the latter, then I would urge you not to just take those feelings as an unavoidable response to the way things are. Instead, I encourage you to use those feelings to examine how you relate to the news, and to think about whether or how that relationship could change.
The closing words have been attributed to the Sufi poet Hafez, and I think what he’s saying about fear could also apply to anxiety or guilt or depression: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”