Monday, March 7, 2011

A partial defense of reading news

Bryan Caplan has an interesting and contrarian post up in which he encourages readers to forego reading news, based on a TED talk given by Rolf Dobelli.

I'm torn. As a teenager, I was much lessof a news junkie than my parents or most of the adults I knew. I was mostly interested in literary fiction and pre-1900 history, interests that were certainly intellectual but remote from most current events. My mother found this baffling. "How am I supposed to talk to you if you don't read the paper?" she might say. I would occasionally try to defend my habits by resorting to the same kinds of arguments that Bryan and Dobelli do.

That said, there are a range of types of news coverage out there. Some of the publications that Bryan cites -- The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker -- are fairly news-oriented. It seems odd not to call them news. I suppose his argument could be read as merely discouraging spending a great deal of time reading short-form, Associated Press style headlines. Even so, I at least often encounter a mix of both short, AP-style news stories and longer-form essays on the blogs I read. It would be difficult to forego one while giving up the other.

Also, knowing about current events serves a useful social function. News gives people who might not share much a common set of experiences to discuss, without forcing either party to reveal much that simply feels too personal. I, for one, find it harder to talk about my non-political intellectual interests with my friends. Many of my friends are familiar with what appeared on the front page of The New York Times yesterday. Fewer know very much about the status and power of women at the court of Louis XIV. I have to go over basics. Often, these conversations can generate into an unpleasant monologue. Even if the person professes to be interested, the exchange can feel terribly awkward.

Finally, the last quoted paragraph suggests that being a news junkie makes you dumber. I don't think that's quite right. As Pnin would hasten to point out, most people have little incentive to read lots of political news. There's simply not much chance that their behavior (whether by voting in elections or otherwise) will have much of an influence on politics. So it's entirely rational to spend as little time on these pursuits as possible. So many of the people who do consume lots of political news don't do so because they're trying to become more informed. Rather, many do because they see themselves as fans of either Team Red or Team Blue, and they enjoy rooting for their team.

So long as an individual news junkie understands this dynamic and tries to maintain a neutral, truth-seeker stance, she's probably safe from partisan media's sillier effects. Keep in mind also that the kind of person who enjoys having her views validated and shys away from conflicting perspectives can certainly do the same thing by reading books. In some ways, it's easier for the news junkie to encounter opposing views. It doesn't take me much time to read an 800 word piece in, say, The American Prospect. Reading an entire book by someone ideologically uncongenial is a much more daunting proposition and one I'm far less likely to undertake.

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