I loved reading the newspapers. I had two additional excuses for reading them – one, that they helped me wake up in the morning. (It takes me about an hour to fully wake up and be ready to go to work.) And, I believed that reading the newspapers and having comprehensive knowledge of current events was important to my work as a lawyer. I thought I needed this information to be informed on changes in the law and to better understand the human condition.
When I went on vacation, I spent even more time reading the newspapers because I had more time to spend reading them. I looked forward to the change of pace on those mornings – walking out to get my morning coffee and buying copies of the newspapers, then taking them back and reading them slowly and devotedly – a luxury I didn’t have during a normal work week.
Deciding to Disengage
So why did I stop reading the newspapers? A few months ago I saw Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Greenland breaking up? The seacoast moving 100 miles inland? Drastic weather changes to come during a 10 year period? It was really upsetting. The film certainly made me more intensely aware of the need to conserve energy, but the enormity of the problem seemed overwhelming.
During the past year, The Patriot Ledger, under new ownership, had transmuted from an intelligent, balanced newspaper into a sensationalistic pulp daily. I started thinking of canceling my subscription. At the same time, I was also becoming more aware of the low level of reporting on the TV news. TV producers seem to assume a very short attention span. Visual images flit on the screen, and content panders to the basest of human nature. Although I respect Public Radio and listened to it during my commute to and from work, news on WBUR was also quite depressing, with another new war consuming the airwaves.
Then I went on vacation to a music camp for adults on a beautiful college campus in California. I went with my brother, and we spent a lot of time together, living on campus and intensely pursuing our shared interest in music.
I decided not to read the newspaper and to forego TV and radio news while I was there ? just to give it a try. I had previously learned not to read e-mails while on vacation in order to create a much-needed buffer from work and enjoy a greater amount of rest than otherwise might result from a one-week vacation.
I called work once a day during my vacation to see if I was needed and to give advice on ongoing cases. Very few direct client calls were necessary during the week. I was feeling very rested by the end of the week. Being “off the grid” really helped.
Finding Time to Ponder
This was my first week spent without newspapers during my adulthood, and it surprised me that I made it through the week without any news media – and I did so quite easily. When I saw newspapers in my vicinity, I simply turned the other way. (This was not too difficult, as the San Francisco Examiner is not very tempting to read, even to a vacationer with a bad newspaper habit.)
When I returned from my vacation five months ago, I decided to continue avoiding newspapers. And, as an experiment, I stopped listening to news on the radio and TV, too. Prior to my vacation, I had loaded my iPod with human interest stories from WGBH and WNPR and enjoyed listening to them during my commute to work from Quincy to Brookline and back. Now, I even put the iPod away and began listening only to music CDs on my way to and from work. With the music playing in the background, I had time to ponder clients’ cases and try to solve case problems during my commute (an unbillable benefit to my clients).
Keeping Up to Date
Do I miss knowing the news? Absolutely not. First of all, even with my avoidance of news media, I find out all the important things that are happening locally and in the world. People tell me details about what’s in the news, starting with “Did you hear about ….” I’ve noticed that people are especially keen to tell me things after I tell them I’m not reading newspapers. I mentioned to one person that I had stopped reading the paper, and she proceeded to tell me about the new terrorist threat. I was in a hotel attending a professional conference when news about the new Mideast conflict blared out at me from a large TV in the lobby. Although I walked away and averted my eyes, I realized what had happened in Lebanon within a couple of seconds.
My spouse (who still reads the papers) clips articles she thinks I might be interested in. Even though the papers come to the house, I am disciplined enough to leave them in their wrappers, and not look at the headlines. When I see newspapers in newsstands and stores, I turn away.
Opting for Selective Exposure
People have accused me of being a bad citizen for not reading the newspapers. But, it’s not like I’m an ostrich sticking my head in the sand. I’m not really turning off the outside world, I’m just turning it down. And, it’s really just the daily mass news media that I am opting out of. So it’s really not “no news,” but rather selective exposure to the news. It’s not that The New York Times is bad – it’s very interesting. It’s just too much to absorb 365 days a year. So, instead of engaging in daily news media, I read weekly or monthly publications. I’ve been a reader of The New Yorker all my adult life. It’s my favorite magazine, the one I hope to read for the rest of my life. I read The New Yorker each week, not cover to cover, but I read selectively. It contains quite a bit of news.
Making Informed Choices
People often ask me how I can go out without knowing the weather in the morning. It’s quite easy. I open the door, feel the temperature, look at the sky, sometimes look at the thermometer on the porch, and I get a really good sense of what the weather is and will be during the day. Generally, the weather at 6:30 a.m. is 15 or 20 degrees less than at noon, so I adjust for that. I keep an umbrella in the car. I find I don’t really need to read about the weather in the newspaper or hear the weather on TV. (Although admittedly, I have found The Weather Channel to be the least offensive of all TV programming.)
By the time you read this article, we will have a new governor in Massachusetts. But, throughout the campaign I didn’t see even one political commercial on TV. It was wonderful, especially because I’ve been told about the awful tenor of some of this year’s ads. By not engaging in the mass media, I only had to hear about it once, rather than 20 or more times. I think once is enough. Campaign ads are a sign of how intemperate the discourse in this country is becoming. It’s very uncivil. In spite of not seeing the campaign ads, I felt I could make an informed choice in the election. In fact, I heard my candidate of choice speak in person on three occasions.
Saying No to Negativity
I had not realized the toll that the barrage of negative news and detailed information from the entire outside world had been taking on me. I had been over-stimulated with the endless flow of facts about all the bad things people do to each other. I have since come to believe that the news media tries to addict people to their sensationalized content. When people are in a constant state of fear, they are more apt to tune in regularly.
I now think it is strange that we, as media consumers, feed on the bad news and negative things when, in reality, mainly good things happen in the world. I started seeing more of those good things. And, I realized that the bad things that actually do happen to the people in our own orbit are much fewer in number and less horrible than all the news in the media. Why not just deal with our own lives?
Someone gave me a Boston Business Journal article that claimed that the average American consumer receives more than 5,000 advertising messages a day. Even though I’m not involved with daily mass new media, I started counting one day, and I can see how a person (especially a TV watcher) could get up to that amount.
I started thinking about how many “bad news” messages an average American receives in a day. It’s probably hundreds or thousands. Even religion can’t counteract all the detritus of all the bad news that is bouncing around our society like crazy billiard balls. It’s wonderful not to receive so much negative input. I believe that the over-stimulation delivered by the daily mass media is a serious threat to our physical and emotional well-being.
Because I’m not engaging in watching news on TV, when I do see snippets (like CNN News playing at Dunkin’ Donuts), I’m aghast at how it piles one negative thing on another – paced in three-second increments. And, as if that’s not bad enough, there is a little line of type crawling across the bottom of the screen, continually relating more horrible things.
The Really Good News
What has not reading the newspapers and being insulated from TV and radio news done for me? I now realize how overwhelmed I was by the onslaught of bad news. The news was making me sick, and I am now in the process of healing. After stopping the media assault, I feel much calmer. I look at everything more positively. The world seems a more beautiful place. And, I realize that there really is a lot of good news in the world that does not get reported, not just all the “bad things all the time” that the mass media focus on. Even when I read the news articles that come my way, I notice that I just skim them, and do not let all the words come into my consciousness. I limit the barrage of words that our culture creates and consumes. Having fewer words impinging on my consciousness has promoted a new level of mental health for me. I feel that I am healing on a daily basis from years of media news assault.
I have created more time in my day – about two hours more. This is a very long period of time to have restored to my day. I somehow never got around to reading certain professionally-oriented books; I was too busy to read them at work, and I didn’t want to read them after work or on weekends. Now, instead of reading the newspapers in the morning, I read these books with great interest, concentration, and enjoyment. They are helping me bring my practice of law to a new level.
I have also started to read books on marriage and relationships that I have found very helpful in my practice as an attorney. I have come to realize that novels and memoirs that deal with human nature and human interactions are much more important to the work of a lawyer than reading newspapers or experiencing mass news media. So I read novels, memoirs, and other fiction and non-fiction books in the morning. I find that I am more selective in my reading, and often skim portions to not overload myself with information.
Changes in Mood and Relationships
My overall mood (which was quite good and positive before) has become much more positive. I am a truly sunny person most of the time now. I take much more pleasure in experiencing nature around me (even through the car windows as I commute). The new degree of silence and wordlessness in my life is welcome and quite enjoyable. I have become the TV “police,” turning off TVs when I visit friends and clients at nursing homes and hospitals. I now view TV as extremely negative input and find it intensely unwelcome.
I have become much more present in the moment. This has greatly helped me in my practice of the law. I am much more patient with my clients and co-workers, and listen to everyone in a more open way. Somehow, getting rid of the barrage of outside negativity has helped me to be much more positive.
I have become a better spouse, sibling, mother, and friend. I have become much more caring and present for my friends and family, and have found myself doing little things for people to a much greater extent, just because I want to. It is really amazing how profound the results of not being exposed to the news has been, and how unexpected.
Becoming a Better Lawyer
As a collaborative lawyer, I find myself more sensitive to all the aspects of collaborative practice, even when (perhaps especially when) I fail to live up to them. I have found that my skills in listening to other people without judgment (which is good in all aspects of my practice) has increased. I am a better interviewer, and am more able to find out clients’ (and other parties’) true concerns and interests. I have found myself less rushed during the work day in general. I realize how much I was multi-tasking at work, and now I have intentionally stopped multi-tasking. As it turned out, multi-tasking did not really help in any meaningful way, and I still get my work done.
I am much more peaceful and open at work. I enjoy my work more, and am a better lawyer. I have the space and peace to really prepare prior to a client meeting. Somehow, my priorities at work and at home are different. I have become a more effective person and a better and kinder person – all because of not experiencing the negativity of the mass news media on a daily basis.
A Practice for a Lifetime
It became very clear to me after the first two months that abstaining from the news media was a “practice,” akin to such practices as yoga, Buddhism, and vegetarianism. Although I don’t engage in the latter three, I have realized that disengaging from the mass news media is a practice I hope to retain for my lifetime. And, as the months go by, it keeps getting easier and easier.
This is not to say that I am unconcerned about the suffering and conflict in the world. I am very concerned and worried. I feel so sad that so many of the dreams my generation had in the ‘60s of repairing the world have not come to pass, and in certain ways, the present world is even in much worse shape now, 40 years later.
However, I believe the mass media is purposely negative in its attempt to rile everyone up to sell newspapers and increase revenues. And the public has bought into this system by devouring stories of murder and mayhem, without giving much thought about what they’re doing. My not watching news on TV has expanded into hardly watching TV at all. Now when I glance at TV, I can quickly see, analyze, and recognize the negativity that is transmitted in it in a split second. And identifying the source of this negativity (and choosing not to participate in it) has been a very healing process for me.
Let There Be Peace
Recently I recalled the words to an old song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There is a lot of peace in the world. In fact, most of the world is a beautiful place filled with beautiful, caring people. The murders, car crashes, rapes, and other acts of violence are a much smaller part of life. Yet, the mass media encourages us to focus on all this negative news in a disproportionate and very unhealthy way. In fact, it’s possible that all this bad news has contributed to destabilizing the world and preventing world peace. The world might be much less troubled if the news was more positive, and if people engaged with it less.
I believe that I can be more helpful to the world by functioning well and generously in my own little domain – being a private person with a job, a spouse, friends, and a family.
I believe that by being present and helpful in my little domain, and by keeping good energy in my being and life, I can have a positive effect around me. Even if it is a small, personal, untelevised effect, it may have ripples into the larger society, and maybe even the world. That is all I can do, and it is really a lot. By letting go of the burden of being involved in mass media, I have created the calm and peace that has allowed me to begin functioning as an agent of positivity and goodwill in this troubled, complex world we live in.
© 2006 Laurie Israel. All rights reserved.