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. Joseph Epstein, a distinguished essayist, is the former editor of The American Scholar, the author of a number of short-story collections, and a regular contributor to magazines such as Commentary and The Weekly Standard.
In the latter publication, he recently related his reasons for canceling his New York Times subscription. "Laughter, an elegant phrase, a surprising sentiment--the New York Times op-ed and editorial pages are the last place to look for any of these things," he wrote. The Atlantic Wire asked Epstein the natural followup question: where is the first place he looks for these things? He responded with the following essay.
My media diet is the literary equivalent of vegan.
The background to this is that I am as far as possible from being a political junkie, which reduces greatly the prospect of my having ever become a news junkie. My saintly mother, early in my youth, pronounced, with an amused hauteur, all politicians thieves and sixty years of my own experience watching the breed has turned up nothing to confute her sensible pronouncement. With the exception only of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom I knew slightly, there has not been a single member of either body of the United States Congress during the past half century whose company I should want even for the duration of a cup of coffee.
Still, one does have a vague and intermittent interest in what the dogs are up to: what delusions they are selling, what scandals they are creating with their errant behavior, what they are getting away with at the public expense. For more than forty years I subscribed to the New York Times, which wasn't at all helpful to me in this much less than intense quest. That earnest if no longer august rag has always been, as they say on the carnival grounds, with the show. Its foolish editors took the game of American politics entirely seriously; the effect has been rather like sending Aristotle out to review the latest Marx Brothers movie. A few weeks ago I cancelled my subsciption, which has improved my appetite, pepped up my sex life, and taken the bloody out of Sunday Bloody Sunday mornings as I leafed through its dreary pages. I wish to report that I haven't been so happy with a personal decision as that of canceling my subscription to the New York Times since I decided, a few years back, to cease recycling.
My wife subscribes to the Wall Street Journal, and, when she comes upon something of interest in it, calls it to my attention. Although it is lined up politically quite as much as the New York Times, the Journal does seem to allow a bit of oasis space for the occasional unpredictable opinion or story. I do not take a local--that is, a Chicago--newspaper. Nor do I listen to local television news, with its ever-freshened content of gang shootings, fires, and people with extreme yet uninteresting hobbies. A serial killer living two floors below me could be captured and I would not know about it, unless a neighbor mentioned it in the elevator. Cutting oneself off from the news of one's own metropolis gives one the slight feeling of living on the moon, where, whatever its unreality, it allows one to meet a better class of people, which is to say, my wife and myself.
My wife and I watch the so-called prime-time evening news, which we pre-record, so that we can fast forward our way through all the Cialis, Plavix, Boniva, and other alte cocker pills, ointments, and salves. After some shopping around, we have decided to watch the Katie Couric version, not for Ms. Couric, who is far from convincing either in her impression of seriousness or of empathy, but because the other two shows seem worse. Brian Williams, who wears admirable neckties, lost me when he began to end his show--upbeatedly, I'm sure the idea was--with a wretched segment called "Making a Difference," which might feature a retired geezer, out of the kindliness of his heart, teaching autistic children to make lanyards. I soon grew tired of trying to ferret out what conceivable difference any of these people could be making. Meanwhile, Ms. Couric offers unconscious laughs of her own. Only three nights ago, Harry Smith, her temporary replacement while she has been off in Afghanistan, announced, "Coming up: Katie in Kabul." Ah, Katie in Kabul--it has, does it not, the faint ring of Eloise at the Plaza.
Sometimes, chez Epstein, we turn to PBS's The News Hour, formerly The Jim Lehrer Hour, where various rivalling experts give excruciatingly dull subjects--charter schools, subprime mortgages, campaign finance, and so much more--all the agonizing time they deserve. What fun! Impressive Jewish philanthropist that I am, I make an annual contribution to PBS of $75, chiefly because of Masterpiece Theatre and Masterpiece Mysteries. I wish that they would use my entire contribution to get Jim Lehrer a couple of decent neckties so that he can toss the Salvation Army thrift shop specials he now wears.
Instead this contribution gives me a free subscription to Newsweek, which I throw out without so much as cracking it open. The finisher here for me was the magazine’s running Michelle Obama's cover story on the need to fight Obesity in America. Doesn't Michelle realize that I am already fighting Climate Change and doing my damnest in the fight to Save the Planet? A fellow’s arms get tired.
A number of magazines come into this apartment that I do open. Among them are Commentary, The Washington Monthly, The London Times Literary Supplement, The Weekly Standard, Vanity Fair, The New Criterion, Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I am currently nine full issues behind in my reading of the TLS. Some of these magazines I merely glimpse, finding one, at most two pieces worth reading.
The most disappointing of them all, though, has been The New Yorker. And what disappoints about it is that it has allowed itself to become so thoroughly politicized. The old New Yorker, under William Shawn, breathed the spirit of liberalism, but part of Shawn's genius was to be able to do this without allowing his magazine to become hostage to any political party. The current New Yorker, which some weeks reads as if it were the Nation got up in Ralph Lauren clothes, is lamentably hostage to the Democratic Party and the good god Obama. Week after week Hendrik Hertzberg hochs us en chinik from "Talk of the Town" with his dismal sermons on the swinish Republicans and on the fundamental decency of the Democrats. Not a good thing for a magazine that once was a national institution of great prestige, and was so in good part because it held itself back from such partisanship. The result is that it has lost its authority to make the important political pronouncements--Rachael Carson on the environment, James Baldwin on the Black Muslims--that it once had. Pity.
Online I do check into the aggregator website of the lovable, huggable Tina Brown (she's baby to me), The Daily Beast. On it I might check a bizarre video, take a confident pass on the Mel Gibson and Lady Gaga material and the list of the twenty best places to get a hiatus hernia, but find a news story to read in the quick glancing way one reads things on computers, including (I fear) this little composition you are now reading. I have bookmarks for Politico.com and the Drudgereport.com, but seem to forget to check in on them for weeks at a time.
So there you have it, the diet of a media vegan, splendidly uninformed and content to be out of the loop, all loops.
What, you might wonder, do I do with all the time I don't spend in endless swamp of ephemeral news? Well, I've made a little rediscovery of a marvelous invention called books, which I'm told are going out of style but which give a satisfaction much deeper than any other means of communication I know. You might want to turn off your computer, trash your newspaper, flick off your television, and give them a shot.