What good is being informed?

When President Donald Trump bucked the National Rifle Association a couple of weeks ago, endorsing restrictions on gun ownership, everyone who doesn’t make a living as a political journalist knew it was nonsense and he’d eventually be forced to get back in step.

When the president quickly agreed to meet the leader of North Korea, most everyone knew he would backtrack.

And yet, we in the media covered it dutifully as fact, almost as if we were covering a typical president, creating an illusion which, while satisfying those who just want the news media to be stenographers, participates in a lie, corrupting journalism’s mission to inform.

Journalists haven’t yet figured out how to properly report on politics in American in 2018. News organizations report “fake news” because politicians are making fake news and their job is to report what politicians are doing. And what politicians are doing is distracting, misinforming, and deceiving the nation.

In the process, you become misinformed and uninformed, so perhaps Erik Hagerman, of Gloucester, Ohio, has the right idea.

Turn it all off. Tune it all out. Pay no attention to us. Pay no attention to them. At all.

Hagerman is arguably the most uninformed man in America, the New York Times reported over the weekend.

“I had been paying attention to the news for decades,” Hagerman said about his project to know nothing. “And I never did anything with it.”

He was a corporate type with Nike before he saved enough money to buy a former strip mine in Ohio, his native sod, and go out of his way to avoid anything happening in the world.

The Times’ reporter was only allowed to interview him if he agreed to bring no news of the outside world with him.

He makes Ohio sound like paradise.

Being a news consumer doesn’t enhance society, he says. So he created “the Blockade.”

He counts a few boats that have sailed past The Blockade. He saw a picture of Kim Jong-un on a newspaper at the coffee shop, signaling that something was up with North Korea. And he overheard someone saying something about Obamacare, which meant health care was back in the news. His brother alerted him to the Equifax breach for his own protection.

“But the blockade has been pretty damn effective,” Mr. Hagerman said.

He said that with some pride, but he has the misgivings about disengaging from political life that you have, by now, surely been shouting at him as you read. “The first several months of this thing, I didn’t feel all that great about it,” he said. “It makes me a crappy citizen. It’s the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to political outcomes you disagree with.”

It seems obvious to say, but to avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people, like, for example, immigrants worried about deportation, cannot afford.

“He has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through,” said his sister, Bonnie Hagerman. “That’s a privilege. We all would like to construct our dream worlds. Erik is just more able to do it than others.”

He’s putting his energy into reclaiming the land, preserving it, and living on it. It’s penance for the moral cost of “the Blockade,” the Times says.

Related: Maybe voters aren’t as uninformed as elites like to think (Vox)

  • …and he just may be more informed than much of the voting populace…

    • Jay T. Berken

      Or better informed…

  • Gary F

    I forwarded this to my 22 year old son who everyday is riled up over the outage of the day and is a sucker for every click bait fake news story out there.

    • jon

      Wasn’t it a boomer who said “if you aren’t outraged then you aren’t paying attention.”

      Seems like ignorance is infact bliss… and has been for the last half century at least.

      • I think the question is what good does outrage do between elections?

        • Bob Sinclair

          Nothing unless it leads to action

        • RBHolb

          There is more to our political lives than elections.

          • I renew my question. I renew the question in the hed of the piece.

          • RBHolb

            What good is it to be informed? The vast majority of us live in communities. We don’t have the luxury of putting large sums of money into safe investments and spending our days restoring the landscape on our private estate. There are things we have to know on a fundamental level, like if health insurance will continue to be available, or how our children’s schools going to prevent mass shootings. Perhaps, too, we may care about bigger issues that may not have an immediate effect on us, personally. Why is it necessary to reforest old mining property? Will the people who do the landscaping work be removed from the country? What can be done to stop someone from OD’ing on fentanyl?

            It’s not in our DNA to isolate ourselves. Humans evolved as social animals, and we live in groups of one size or another. This is what Aristotle meant by the observation that man is a “political animal.” He didn’t mean that in the sense of deciding who holds power. Instead, he meant that it is in our nature to live in communities with one another, and interact with one another. The person who isolates himself—the rich eccentric holed up on his rustic estate, or the survivalist who comes to town a couple times a year for supplies—is like an “isolated piece at draughts.”

            I will admit that I took pride in avoiding the political news in the early days of the Trump administration. There was more joy in reading about new developments in paleontology than in watching the American Republic’s death by farce. That moment has passed. I still live in the United States, and in my community. Throwing up my hands and saying “**** it all” isn’t a valid response anymore. To be honest, I don’t know that it ever was.

        • Kassie

          When is “between elections?” There are elections every year. Often special elections and primaries and caucuses in between. There is always an election.

          • Jerry

            My dad is working as an election judge today

        • jon

          I used to have an answer for that… We used to be able to petition our representatives and convince them to follow the will of the people.

          But since DC has moved to a “Party über alles” mentality, I guess the outrage would only be useful if it can change the beliefs of the party.

  • MikeB

    Agreed that news organizations are trying to catch up in how they do their business. But deliberate ignorance is not the answer. We have enough of that already.

  • Frank

    You might not believe it, but by the second sentence into the actual meat of the story, I was thinking “Uh huh, there it is…damned white privilege rearing its ugly head again.”

    I literally choked on my coffee reading Ms. Hagerman’s quote, no kidding.

    All memes, good ones and bad, have a shelf life. When you start seeing frivolous places to insert one, and find that spot already occupied, it’s probably gone bad in my opinion.

    • Barton

      I read it the same way you did.

    • RBHolb

      Yeah. Except, of course, that she didn’t say “white privilege.” She said “privilege.” It was your assumption that it must be white.

      Those who look for reasons to be irritated are seldom disappointed. Why, though, would you bother?

      • Frank

        Oh, please.

        And you mistake me, sir. I see the whole thing as highly amusing, not a jot of irritation or dissapointment in it.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        One need only click on the NYT link to see a picture of Mr Hagerman walking down his driveway. (Obviously not to pick up the morning paper.)

        • RBHolb

          His privilege stems from his wealth, rather than his race.

          Although I can’t think of any examples of wealthy non-white people whose eccentricities are celebrated.

  • Rob

    I would argue that low-information consumers who get all or most of their input about politics from hyper-partisan media outlets are less informed than this ex-Nike dude.

  • Mike

    The only thing that’s really changed with Trump is that he’s much more blatant about it all. Politicians, including presidents, have been liars since the beginning of the republic. As Ken Burns’ recent Vietnam documentary helped to reiterate, there were no greater political liars in the modern era than Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It’s just that most presidents do it with more polish than the Current Occupant, whose actions help to unmask the charade.

    Many of the elite media also have their own agendas. Was there ever a U.S. military action anywhere in the world in recent decades that they didn’t root for? A great amount of the hysteria around Russian activity recently is meant to distract attention away from the epic failures of the establishment in preventing someone like Trump from getting anywhere near the presidency. Naturally, the “smart” people can’t be wrong, so….. the Russkies!

    Criticize the current circumstances all you like, but it didn’t get this way overnight. It’s been a long time coming, and Trump is merely a symptom of late imperial mendacity, not its cause.

    • Rob

      I would contend that there’s a yuuuuuuge difference between politicians who lie sometimes, but who also are truthful fairly frequently, and a politician who is incapable of telling the truth.

      • Mike

        When did Lyndon Johnson ever tell the truth about Vietnam? Or Nixon, for that matter?

        • Rob

          Yes. A Bright Shining Lie. Never said they told the truth about Vietnam, but there were lots of other issues and policies they had to deal with during their presidencies, and on which they showed themselves capable of being truthful.

  • Mike Worcester

    When I saw the article referenced in the story, I went back and re-read this one, trying to decide if his approach was really the best of the three porridges to choose from.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/technology/two-months-news-newspapers.html

  • JohnOCFII

    Reading twitter in the morning makes me want to hide under the covers. Time to stop that habit.

  • julie

    As the NYT author comments in the article it is an enormous privilege to be “uninformed.” He is white and presumably not afraid of his citizenship status, he has financial resources, it does not mention health care worries. So while it may be emotionally healing to blockade yourself from the news, it is not a privilege many can afford.

  • LifebloodMN

    “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” -Mark Twain. Another good Twain piece is called “License of the press”, some remarkable insight from 1873 (AD).

  • MrE85

    My wife and I often talk of moving to rural New Zealand and raising goats, so I can’t throw stones at the Man Who Knew Too Little.

    • You have to watch out for Hobbits…

      • jon

        I hates the hobbitses!

        But I gather they cook up nice (boil em’, bake em’, put em’, in a stew…)

        • Rob

          Sounds like an excellent Second Breakfast

    • John O.

      Jon Grunseth ended up in Tasmania with his own cherry orchard.

    • ec99

      Or, perhaps, to Sussex to keep bees.

      • MrE85

        There’s no place like Holmes.

  • Bob Sinclair

    It’s interesting in that he said that he never did anything with the information he received
    Isn’t that at least part of the point that we stay informed so that we can make choices based on that information?
    They may be bad or good choices but at least there is some form of action taken. And that action can/will effect the lives of others e/in our sphere of influence
    Granted blockading outside info is a choice but it only effects that individual. To me this is just selfish

    • His civic engagement is saving a piece of land for the future and for whatever else lives on it now, reclaiming it from the corruption of a mining operation. That would be the definition of not selfish.

      I wake up every day and I see the same arguments thrown back and forth by the two factions of NewsCut commentators and think, “what the hell do they think they’re accomplishing with their lives and time invested in this activity?”

      Nothing. At least nothing that isn’t selfish.

      • KTFoley

        For the most part, we also enjoy the protection of not worrying about our immigration status, living without power in PR (gonna be 6 months next Tuesday!), going without a paycheck during a federal shutdown, losing our healthcare … oh wait.

        As we triage our news, so should we triage our reaction.
        Things that don’t affect us: if we can say that in full truth, not in a John-Donne-was-just-a-poet sense, then the Off button is our best hope for sanity and a fruitful use of our short lives. I’m not going to suggest a list because people need to weigh this distinction for themselves.

        Things that affect us via our community, planet, or future: in the same way that we need to pick and choose our reliable sources, we need to decide which causes take priority and which actions are effective. I’ve never seen a Facebook petition that ever did anything, but if Nekima Levy-Pounds asks me to research Natalie Pollard and call Ramsey County Attorney John Choi if I think she should not be tried a second time for killing her abuser, then I’m going to make that call. And I’m going to ask others to consider doing the same.

        Things that affect us directly: more than anything, channel that outrage into purposeful action. March, call, vote, organize, donate, run for office. We can’t afford to be distracted by activity that leads to no result but just makes us feel good any more than we can afford to be distracted by news that leads to no result but just makes us feel bad.

        None of that takes away from how right Bob is that, wherever the topic lands, typing to the choir here takes very little effort and pays off about the same.

      • Bob Sinclair

        Point taken re reclaiming the land
        I sit corrected

  • AL287

    I have done the same thing just on a smaller scale.

    I used to turn on my radio in the morning at home and on my way to work and listen to NPR’s Morning Edition but after the Oreske’s scandal, it lost some of its appeal for me. I now have my stereo console radio tuned to MPR Classical. My blood pressure has improved immensely and I am a much calmer person although not so well informed.

    The same thing happened with MPR after the Keillor debacle.

    The two sources I thought were above that sort of thing were no better than anyone else. I was definitely naive to think that public radio and TV news could prevent that from happening within their ranks.

    I wouldn’t be a man right now for all the tea in China and beyond. When we take away the right to due process for whatever reason, we’ve put a chink in the armor of democracy.

    This news forum, blog, whatever you want to call it keeps me very well informed, probably better than the regular broadcast channels and cable networks.

    I can gauge the state of the nation by the commenters here and they are from all walks and political stripes.

    I still tune in to the PBS Newshour and the BBC News as these are sources that for the most part give every side a chance to be heard whether they accept the invitation or not.

    Thank you, Bob and Newscutters for keeping me well informed whether I want to be or not.

    • // I wouldn’t be a man right now for all the tea in China and beyond. When we take away the right to due process for whatever reason, we’ve put a chink in the armor of democracy.

      Some media must’ve told you Keillor didn’t get due process so it’s good you’re isolating yourself from misinformation.

      • AL287

        All women have to do since the advent of #metoo and Time’s Up is make an accusation, whether it’s true or not and the damage is done.

        He said/she said would be considered circumstantial evidence in a criminal jury trial without physical evidence of the crime being committed.

        There’s a difference between getting justice and getting even.

        Making an accusation many years after the fact is getting even, not getting justice.

        Taking action when the deed is done is getting justice and I know you’re going to say that the women weren’t believed back then so you can save your breath.

        The times have changed (We hope). It remains to be seen if justice will be served in the traditional sense.

        Since the election, traditions seem to be flying out the window at a breathless pace.

  • FYI, I’m deleting most of the attempts to hijack the thread to have the same old battles.

    Cuz I’m bored with them.

  • John F.

    One of the most beneficial things I learned in my philosophy program was how to seek a wide variety of sources and how to distinguish between a good source and a bad source. On top of that, you approach every report with a considerable amount of skepticism, realizing that every writer or journalist has their own bias. It is a frustrating and difficult process.

    However, not being informed is dangerous to the health of a republic. From what I understand about our history, a republic can only function properly if the general voting populace is informed, at least to some degree. Being informed requires the same education I highlighted above – an understanding on how to locate sources and critically think about those sources.

    Without going down the conspiracy theory road, I find it interesting that the era of fake news, poor argumentation, and polarization is coupled with the same era in which philosophy is often referred to as “worthless”, not only by politicians but by some of our public academics as well. Pretty easy to control a populace with bad information when they can’t critically think.

  • Zachary

    There is a great character in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” series named Wonko The Sane. Wonko, after discovering that everyone except himself in the universe was insane, (by discovering instructions on a box of toothpicks) decided to “live outside the universe”. So, he built in inside-out house, and lived in that.

    Somedays I feel he had the right idea.

  • Ralphy

    While I recognize the importance of being an informed citizen, being cut off is bliss. One of the healthiest things I’ve ever done was to take a sabbatical last summer from politics, joining several of my buddies.
    I can feel the political quicksand up to my chest again…

  • Susan WB

    I took a nice long vacation over Christmas and New Year’s, and completely ignored all news and social media. I was a happier person, for sure. I was more grounded, relaxed, carefree even.

    But I don’t have that luxury all the time. I have a job. That job is largely dependent on government grants. I need to know if those grants are going to be cut. Or if the state government shuts down, although I don’t work for them, they can’t issue the grant and I’d probably be furloughed. I need to know that. I collaborate with agencies who serve newly resettled refugees. When refugee resettlement numbers get reduced severely (as they have been) I want to know that so I can be a good partner to my colleagues. Coworkers in my agency get worried when the President’s budget completely eliminates funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which is the umbrella for AmeriCorps, because they place and supervise AmeriCorps VISTA members. A whole department of my (small non-profit) agency would disappear in that scenario. I can’t not know about that.

    Being informed is required for basic functioning in my work life. I don’t have a choice to start a permanent “blockade,” no matter how pleasant it might be.