How do people deal with the torrent of information that rains down on us all? What's the secret to staying on top of the news without surrendering to the chaos of it? In this series, we ask people who seem well-informed to describe their media diets. This contribution is from Bret Stephens, foreign-affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal and deputy editorial page editor, responsible for the editorial pages of the Journal's European and Asian editions.
I wear two hats at the Wall Street Journal, one as a columnist, the other as the editor responsible for our editorial pages in Asia and Europe. Which means that my Manhattan morning begins in the Hong Kong dusk, as editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal Asia file their copy. Topics vary: yet another Japanese government; a proposed Australian mining tax; Maoist rebels in India, and so on. No morning is quite complete without the in-house email telling us what editorial or op-ed some censor, usually Chinese, has literally torn out of every copy of the paper distributed in the country. I wonder if it ever occurs to the censors that their work mainly reminds us of the significance of ours. It's moral espresso.
I almost never listen to radio or watch political talk shows, especially if I happen to be on them. I also rarely read a newspaper in print. I'll read as much as I can online of The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and RealClearPolitics on my desktop at home and then on my Blackberry on my way to work. That continues when I get to the office, where I'll also usually scan stories from the Washington Post and Politico, The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, Der Spiegel and Mexico’s Reforma. For blogs, I usually read Contentions and, yes, the Atlantic Wire. I check out what's on Drudge and—my guilty pleasure—Curbed, a Web site that's all about New York real estate. Nice to dream of where I could be living if only I'd become an investment banker.
My office-hour reading is fairly ad hoc: I generally read whatever seems relevant to what I'm editing, writing, or thinking about writing. Off-line, I read government reports—I just got through the 2010 DoD annual report on "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China"—and journals or magazines like Commentary, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. If Walter Russell Mead has written something I’ll read it for the brilliance of the substance, and if Christopher Hitchens has written something I’ll read it for the excellence of the style. Publishers send me book galleys, most of which I put on the remainder desk but some of which clutter my office. Currently I'm leafing through a copy of Max Hastings's "Winston's War," and Robert McCrum's "Globish," about how English became the world's lingua franca. (There: Now you know.)
By early afternoon the editorials from the London-based Wall Street Journal Europe roll in, so my gaze shifts to stress-tests for European banks, budget cuts in Britain, growth figures in Germany, tax legislation in the Czech Republic and so forth. By the time all that's done, at around three o'clock or so, my eyes are glazing over. That’s typically when I’ll turn to The Onion, whose offerings—“TIME Announces New Version of Magazine Aimed at Adults”; “Ambassador Holding Phrasebook ‘Pretty Sure’ She Just Strengthened Ties With Pakistan”—are more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than the last dozen or so winners combined. Not that that’s saying much.
Still, I have a column to think about, and I write unsigned editorials of my own once or twice a week. So I have to cast about for topics and angles, preferably ones that haven't been done to death elsewhere. Then there are the books I periodically review, and which I read cover-to-cover. Sometimes, as with Edmund Morgan’s “American Heroes” or Michael Young’s “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square,” that can be delightful. Other times it’s a little less delightful.
I probably should say something about what I don't read. My wife gets a subscription to the New Yorker, which I glance at for the cartoons, the back-page caption contest, and maybe a film review if Anthony Lane is writing. But I'm put off by articles that always seem to run 50,000 words (or what seems like 50,000 words) too long. We also get the Economist at home, which I admire for the quality of its prose (particularly its obits) and the breadth of its coverage. But brevity has become an issue for me, and I mainly stick to the magazine's shorter, more off-beat stories. I don't read Vanity Fair, whose millionaire-fashionista-liberal shtick I find repellent. I only read the FT when I'm in Europe, where its concerns seem slightly less off-point than they are in the U.S. Other than Paul Krugman, who falls under the "know thine enemy" category, I only occasionally read the columnists in the New York Times. And I only read the paper's editorials—those tedious, hectoring, utterly predictable screeds—if I need a laugh. I used to read Andrew Sullivan; now I find him parodic, though in fairness he'd probably say the same about me.
That isn't to say I only read what I agree with: I enjoy the Guardian; I sometimes enjoy The New Republic; I can handle the liberals on the Washington Post's roster. But if I'm going to digest an opposing point of view it may as well be written with flair. (I should add that I give a lot of conservative commentary a miss, too.)
There's something else I now rarely read, and that's novels. I regret it. I used to devour them as a kid and during the first few years of my professional life. And when, at my wife's insistence, I do get around to reading one—the last one was Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland"—I usually love it. But I've never been good at reading novels in short snippets, and with three kids under the age of seven there never seems to be an uninterrupted stretch of free time that doesn't have some more pressing use, like meeting a friend or going for a run or working on a speech or taking a nap.
Reading over what I’ve just written, I’m astonished by all the things I have to read, and do—and by all the things I should read, but don’t.