Jordan: Do you want to know what I did while I was waiting to record today’s episode? I scrolled frantically through Twitter for whatever news was happening at the moment. And you want to know what I did after we made the episode and we were done for the day and I was relaxing on my porch with a beer? I did the exact same thing. To keep this question theme going, do I know that that’s not a great way to live? Oh yes, I sure do. Do I have a choice? I mean, this is my job after all. Find the big stories. But it’s the answer to that question, do I have a choice? That defines today’s episode. And it’s the feeling that we can’t afford to miss anything because so much of what’s happening now feels immediate and critical that gives a lot of us an excuse to avoid confronting our addiction. Our addiction to news and to social media and just to staring wide-eyed at the latest disaster. But I asked if I had a choice. What if there was a better way to take in the news? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Peter Laufer is a chair professor in journalism at the University of Oregon. An odd person perhaps to go on a news detox, but he’s also written a book on slow news. So maybe not that odd. Hello Peter.
Peter: Good day, Jordan. It’s great to talk with you.
Jordan: Well, thank you for, for making the time. And I guess, just to level set before we get too far into what you did and why you did it and et cetera, et cetera. Tell me a little bit about how you would consume news normally. A lot, a little, where do you get it? Et cetera, et cetera.
Peter: Just compulsively and frantically. And it shows up at the front door on the driveway with the New York Times delivered in the middle of the night, along with the local Eugene Register-Guard. And I would sit at the kitchen counter with the two of them open and too much coffee. And then the laptop flipped up and because I’d be talking to you, I’d probably be looking at the Globe and Mail to see what’s going on in your neighborhood. Maybe listening to some CBC.
But the usual routine is to look at the Guardian and check out what’s happening from their perspective. And then just maniacally picking out stories that are intriguing to me, or I think are important and going to local news sources for them, and then turning on the radio and listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
And when I get into car, turning on something ghastly, like Rush Limbaugh, just to see what’s going on over there, wherever that place is. And probably checking Fox News if I’m really feeling self-defeated, devastating, and want to get even more depressed and I could go on and on and on, but that’s the usual routine prior to the blissful state I’m in now, Jordan.
Jordan: What did you find that the daily news cycle and your consumption of it was doing to you?
Peter: It was making it so that I was not taking a deep breath like that, and it was depressing me and it was overwhelming me. Please don’t, you or your audience, get the idea that I’m promoting ignorance here or not keeping track of what’s going on on a daily basis.
And we can talk about the fires that are all around me now as an example of what we need to know, but to have the purpetual drum beat of misery and bad news, or even good news or neutral news, to have it repeated and repeated and regurgitated so that it becomes oppressive. It becomes the overwhelming attention of your consciousness at the expense, at least in my case, maybe you’re better disciplined than I am. In my case, I wasn’t doing the kinds of other things. I was waiting for that update. What’s happening now? What’s happening next? And most of the time, as consumers know, and certainly those of us in the news business, and it is a business, know, the updates are the same thing.
Maybe rewritten. The actual change in the news isn’t happening that often, except in a breaking story, like these fires and we don’t need to know it right away, even if it is. And that’s what the weekly news dose of the news detox is proving to me now that I’m into my fifth week of being reborn.
Jordan: Why don’t you describe the process of the detox for me, then maybe start with where the idea came from, and, in detail, what do you do? Where do you get news now?
Peter: Yeah, I wrote about a dozen years ago, Slow News, and started what I thought was a new movement, the slow news movement, and learned very quickly that at about the same time, there were colleagues around the world doing the same kind of thing. Trying to get a sense of how as news producers and news consumers, we need to be a little more conscious of what we’re doing. Maybe staying away from the big story where 5,000 reporters go to, at the time of the writing of the book, or just before it, Michael Jackson’s funeral to say, Michael, Jackson’s dead. And what was going on, that wasn’t being covered. So. I came to the realization that I was succumbing to exactly what I was preaching against. I was not engaging in slow news. On the contrary, I was consuming news all the time. And part of this is the COVID 19 pandemic and our understandable concerns about that. Part of it is the ghastly reality of living down here in the States during the criminal Trump era. And part of it is an addiction. That’s the only word for it. So I decided, because one of these global colleagues over in Italy who has been working slow news from that point of view said that he was going to detox himself and he didn’t give me any details, but I thought about that terminology and how it really did apply to the addiction I was suffering from. And so I went cold turkey. And I just stopped. And I decided I would have one day a week of news consumption. And I would do my work. I would read carefully, listen, watch wherever I could find things that I thought were important, credible, or even entertaining. But Monday through Saturday, there would be nothing. No television, no radio. News, I’m talking about. Watching movies. Fine. Listening to music. We have a terrific radio station here in town playing wonderful classics. So no radio news, no television news, the New York times and the Register-Guard literally yellowing out on the sidewalk. I asked my wife, Sheila, to please not talk about the news with me because she’s not participating in this. No news. I simply avoided it. And started doing other stuff. And it’s been dreamy, Jordan, just dreamy.
Jordan: You use the word addiction to describe it. You’ve used the word detox to label what you’re doing. Did you have any withdrawal symptoms?
Peter: I was shocked how minimal they were. The first couple of days, because this has been my routine forever, the first couple of days I got up in the morning and thought, okay, what do I do now? And then I figured out what I would do. I’d read a book, a novel, or I’d read a nonfiction book about something that happened long ago. And I am enjoying the time to be able to do that. I’ve been fooling around on the piano. I drew the maps for a book of mine. That’s just coming out. So those first few days, yes, I was a little squirrelly and I was wondering what I was missing. Then I relaxed into it. And when the first Sunday came around and I sat down with the fat New York Times and read most of it and overdosed on everything else, I felt okay. I’ve caught up. I can go into this next week without this stuff, because again, I don’t want to be ignorant about what’s going on. It’s critically important that we know what the latest nefarious activities of the Trump administration are. And it’s critically important to have an understanding of what’s going on around the world and in our backyards. But Sunday’s enough.
Jordan: Okay. But I mean, you’re a journalism professor. How do you avoid the news six days a week?
Peter: Yeah. Now this is going to be intriguing, I think, when the term starts, because it is a radically different from my approach in the past. I’ve mandated on my syllabi that students read the A section of the New York Times daily. I’m on my soap box all through the term. You have to pay attention to what’s going on. You’ve got to study the news. You have to study it as somebody who is practicing it so that you have an understanding of how to present it and use the language. And you have to know it so that you have a body of knowledge, a curriculum of knowledge to build on.
Peter: So how am I going to convince these students that they need to do this when I’m not doing it? I guess the same way I’m trying to convince you that it’s working, by doing it one day a week and maybe, Jordan, just maybe this’ll be from a pedagogy point of view, more successful since it’s been so hard to get them to read the stuff seven days a week, maybe they’ll join me and study hard on Sundays and go play volleyball or whatever the rest of the week.
Jordan: What about everyday conversations? You mentioned that you’ve told your wife not to talk to you about news, but you also mentioned that you’re living right now, currently in America. And, you know, as an observer, I would imagine like, what’s happening now from Trump to COVID to the wildfires, to everything else, like, dominates every just casual chat you would have with someone
Peter: Well, two points there. So, the fires literally are surrounding us here in Oregon, throughout our state and north up to the Canadian border, down south in California. So my detox is not mindless, I hope. And it’s, let me tell you how severe this is, we have a go bag packed at the door and the car is backed up to the driveway so that we can drive out just without turning around. This is serious stuff here. So, I check in, in the morning with the local news providers and the primary sources, like the fire departments, but I don’t have to have the thing on. Six weeks ago, I’d have it on all the time and just keep hearing the same thing over and over and over again. In terms of conversations, like cocktail party conversation, well, some people are nasty. I have a colleague, a fine fellow and a friend who, as soon as I announced I was doing this, his response to me was, well, I suppose then you don’t want me to tell you that Harris is Biden’s running mate. You know, that wasn’t very nice.
Jordan: I was going to ask you if it was okay if I spoiled you on a couple of things, just for fun!
Peter: Well, yeah, of course it is. Or test me, see if I’m any good. And I really do know what’s happening by just looking at the stuff and listening to this stuff and watching this stuff on Sundays.
Jordan: Well, it’s Thursday now. Do you know anything about Bob Woodward’s new book about Donald Trump?
Peter: You know, this is a really good example, Jordan, because when I do something like check on the fires, it’s impossible to punch up Oregon Public Broadcasting’s site and not see that headline. And then much, I guess, like a heroin addict who’s rubbing his tracks on his inside of his left arm. And I keep myself from clicking on it. And so I saw the headline and the best I can do in terms of this cocktail party conversation we’re having now is to say that apparently Trump told Woodward or Woodward learned through his sources that Trump intentionally downplayed the severity of COVID as he knew it. Of course, that suggests that Trump really knows anything. And maybe what he knows best is show business. And that is to say, to somebody in passing, or to Woodward, or whatever mindless thing he did, that he knew about it. And he didn’t necessarily know about it. So that gives you an idea or certainly gives me an idea of the fragmented nature of what I know until Sunday, when I’ll read the Times and other stuff and learn the details. So is that a reasonable place for me to be? Yeah?
Jordan: That was pretty good. I’ve probably read several thousand more words than you on this subject and you know, you adequately summed it up. That’s for sure.
Peter: And meanwhile, while you were reading that, I was practicing a “House of the Rising Sun” on the piano. So I might be ahead.
Jordan: I mean, if you get to do something else instead of consuming Trump news, I think you’re ending up ahead. But what’s it like on Sundays and I guess maybe when you’re kind of going to bed Sunday night or on Monday morning, to get, you know, a complete picture of a week of news, knowing that you’re getting it at like a certain snapshot in time? Probably midnight on Saturday night or whenever the paper gets put to bed.
Peter: I was worried you’d bust me with this question because the thing that’s happening, I will confess to you and…nobody’s listening, right? Is that I’m not wallowing in it or studying it quite as much as I expected to. I’m definitely paying attention on Sunday, but I get enough faster than I thought I would. And then go back to these other things I was doing. One of the things that’s been just delightful recently, until the fires dropped ash on all of it, is collecting the wild blackberries that have been ripening just in the hills above our house.
Jordan: That’s idyllic.
Peter: Oh, incredibly idyllic. And it’s a practice that I used to do with earbuds in, listening to news. And now I’m listening to the sounds of nature, of these bird calls that I can now distinguish the differences, even though I can’t identify them yet. Maybe I’ll learn. So I’m finding that that is fulfilling and packing all that news in on Sunday, I’m doing a good job. I’m a bloody professor, as you pointed out, of journalism. I know how to do that. And I know I must do it, but it’s not like, oh, great, I’m back where I want to be. It’s more like, okay, this needs to be done, and as soon as I’m done with it, I can go back to the blackberries or back to the piano.
Jordan: My last question then, since this seems to have worked so well for you and you don’t seem to be regretting it at all, and I feel like maybe I should try it, is…as a journalist, what does this say to you about the necessity and the future of our profession? I guess. If you’re able to go from almost everything to almost nothing and not miss it, like, that’s not a great sign.
Peter: No, I think it really is a great sign. I look at it as a re-establishment ,Jordan, of the importance, of the critical importance to the world, to our attempts at democracies, of journalism. We need to know what’s going on. What we don’t need is a superficial rehash, a packaging, a gross commercialization. We need a commercialization. You and I have to earn a living. But what this reminds me of and reinforces for me is, we’ve gone down a wrong path of this superficial repetition and mindless opinion making and calling it news. And we have to get back to the journalism that prompted you and me to get into this business. And so if that makes sense, I’ll challenge you. Okay?
Jordan: Go for it.
Peter: Okay. Now, you’ve got this continuing show, just as I’ve got this continuing responsibility at the university, and you need to know what’s going on to carry on these kinds of conversations. How about trying it just for a week and seeing what happens? I’ll bet you…a loonie. I’ll bet you that your show, not only won’t suffer, but might have a little different sparkle that could be intriguing.
Jordan: I mean, I don’t doubt it. One of the reasons we do the show this way is to slow the news cycle down and talk about one thing every day. But I will take you up on that and I’ll see how it goes.
Jordan: We’ll have to figure out a week where things aren’t going absolutely nuts, but, I will get our producers to hold me to this and I will try to line up some interviews in advance and then, see how it goes.
Peter: I will look forward to hearing about it and I will look forward to sending you that loonie, if you prevail.
Jordan: Thank you very much. And Peter Laufer’s new book comes out next week. It’s called Up Against the Wall: The Case For Opening the Mexican-U.S. Border. And you can read it instead of wasting your time on social media. Thanks Peter.
Peter: Yay, Jordan. It’s just been delightful speaking with you. Thank you.
Jordan: Peter Laufer of the University of Oregon. That was The Big Story. For more, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find us on Twitter, if you’re still using Twitter after listening to Peter, @thebigstoryFPN. You can always of course, write to us thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com. Maybe I’ll read them next Sunday. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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