Why I Am A Bad Newspaper Reader
At some point in the past year or year and a half, I quit reading the newspaper. We gave up the print edition of the paper when we lived in Philly, and subscribed to the iPad version of The New York Times when the cost of home delivery of the physical newspaper went up yet again. Without noticing it, though, I quit using my iPad to read the paper every day. I still subscribe, but I can’t tell you the last time I actually sat down and went through the paper in an orderly way on the iPad. I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading the paper now. Never thought that would happen.
To be sure, I still consume a lot of news online, but it’s not the same thing as systematically and regularly reading the newspaper. I don’t have the same commitment to stay informed that I used to. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and have come up with a few ideas.
At some point, I quit thinking it was important to stay abreast of things in the paper, because it didn’t really matter, in the end. What was going to happen was going to happen, and people like me don’t have much to say about it one way or another. I read as much or more than I ever did, but I’m reading books about deeper things, or at least more engaging things. The newspaper used to give me so much pleasure, not because the news was good, but because it felt vital to be engaged with events. I don’t like this funk, because I’ve always considered people who didn’t read the paper to be irresponsible and lazy. Now I’m that person.
Maybe I’m irresponsible and lazy. I’m probably irresponsible and lazy. Meh.
Part of it too is that I’ve become highly cynical about the media. As you know, I have spent nearly all of my professional career working inside various newsrooms. I know them not to be the dens of iniquity that many conservatives think they are. But I also know them to be a lot more compromised and blinkered than journalists think they are. What has worn me down is in part the overt bias in their coverage; when I read such shoddy reporting about things I know something about, it makes me wonder about the credibility of the coverage of things I know little or nothing about.
Also, thinking about the things the media choose not to cover, but which are still important to understanding the world, gives me a jaundiced view of the news that I’m getting. I know, I know: part of becoming a sophisticated media consumer is learning to read the paper knowing that you’re getting only one view of things. The problem is that it reads like The Official Story now. Attentive readers of the NYT know what the paper’s sacred cows are. Anybody who spends enough time with a particular publication or broadcast program comes to understand this. After a while, though, it may exhaust your patience. On certain issues, I don’t believe the NYT has credibility (I single out the Times because it’s the paper I buy, and have been buying for all my adult life). Again, I have enough sense to know that it represents a liberal Eastern cosmopolitan view of the world, and I still find enough value in it to pay a significant price for access to its material (besides, I’m doing my part to send the young Miss Douthat to college one day). But I don’t care about it as much, because I don’t believe the information it brings to me helps me understand the world as much as I once thought it did. That newspaper helps me understand more how the people who write and edit for it see the world than it helps me understand the actual world.
I suppose the point I’m groping towards is that I’ve lost confidence in both the quality of the information I acquire from the mainstream media, and (perhaps more significantly) I’ve lost the sense that it’s particularly meaningful to acquire that information in the first place. I’m not pleased with myself, I’ll confess. I can hear myself lecturing my sister years ago on why it was important to read the newspaper every day. But if it’s true that affection is what keeps endangered institutions alive, and it’s also true that you can’t order someone to be affectionate, then adopting an eat-your-peas strategy with myself regarding newspaper reading does not seem promising.
Maybe that’s the heart of it: I no longer have much affection for the news business. I loved it so much that I devoted my career to it, entirely out of passion for writing and participating through writing in the great debates of our time. I used to love newspapers. Well, the thrill is pretty much gone, though somehow I abide as a subscriber. What I don’t know is if this is a matter of irreconcilable differences, or merely a mid-life media crisis.
Is it just me? I still love magazines — does that count?