BOB GARFIELD: You can try to turn a deaf ear to the cacophony of online and cable hoo-ha or you can go on a crash media diet. In his latest New York Times article, Farhad Manjoo documented his two months he spent getting his news from print media only. He confesses he still played around on Twitter but for actual news consumption it was all right there on paper.
FARHAD MANJOO: I boiled it down to three sort of Michael Pollan-esque little prescriptions: "Get news, not too quickly, and avoid social."
BOB GARFIELD: The problem, as he sees it, is that our technology is not helping us to understand our world. On the contrary.
FARHAD MANJOO: You know, last year was a crazy year for news. Everyone sort of described this phenomenon where there was so much news that you didn't really remember what happened, you know, a day ago or two days ago or three weeks ago. Everything seemed to kind of blur together. Part of that was because there was just so much news but also I think how we got our news played a big role in that. And so, I wanted to see if I could get a healthier relationship with news.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, one thing that we have consigned ourselves to, especially if we pay attention to cable and Twitter, is not just more news but mainly more reaction to news and reaction to the reaction to the news.
FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah. Being on Twitter, being on social media means getting everyone's reactions to the news, even before you get the news. People will post stories but they’ll their comments on the stories and then the link is under that. And usually they’ll also post the excerpt from the story that makes their point for you. And so, you don't really have to read a lot of stories. In the newspaper, you kind of get deeper into the stories and it comes to you kind of without the roar of the crowd surrounding every story.
BOB GARFIELD: And I guess you have the benefit of one of the great joys of newspaper reading, which is serendipity. You turn the page and there’s something you weren’t looking for, and yet, you are about to be informed about it. And you turn the next page and there’s something else you weren’t looking for, and there IT is.
FARHAD MANJOO: Right so, in one sense, I was severely narrowing my media diet, so I went from all the wonders of the internet to just three daily newspapers, the Times and the Wall Street Journal and my local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and I got The Economist also. So, in one sense, I was narrowing my media diet but in another I found that I was getting exposed to a lot of news that I wouldn't have seen on my social feed, basically everything [LAUGHS] not related to Donald Trump. Twitter has Trump really well covered. What won’t show up is international news, a lot of sort of deeper international news.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about what you missed. One thing that cable news and Twitter are good for is breaking news. I’m thinking of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the mass murder there. This happened while you were on e-sabbatical, and I wonder if you feel like you were short-shrifted by your all-print diet.
FARHAD MANJOO: Yes and no. So, I mean, I learned later that there was just a lot misinformation online. There’s sort of the normal kind of breaking news fog where, you know, in the, in the first hours it wasn't clear how many shooters there were, it wasn't clear how many victims there were. Widely on Twitter, there was this claim that this was the 18th school shooting of the year, which later the Washington Post said was, you know, based on some inflated numbers. Then there was misdirection from like the InfoWars type outlets.
BOB GARFIELD: Like the 4chan prank, where they succeeded in getting people to report that the shooter was a member of a white supremacist organization.
FARHAD MANJOO: And this is something we’ve come to expect and watch out for with breaking news online, and it was amazingly freeing to not have to think about if the thing I was reading about this terrible event was true or not. I mean, the shooting did not affect me personally, and so, I could afford to wait to figure out what happened.
I will say that I did feel, though, that I’d missed out on some parts. So I mean, the, the phenomenon after the shooting where all of those students took to social media to fight for gun control, it was a social media story. And the newspapers covered it but they sort of can't cover it, you know, the way that it happened. You kind of have to be there to see it happen in real time. So, in that sense, it was kind of like watching an election in a foreign country or something, You get a sense of what happened. I think I would have gotten a better sense if I was on Twitter.
BOB GARFIELD: We’ve just gotten done discussing a sort of opposite phenomenon to what you described, and this concerns the Mueller investigation. Even in print media, maybe especially in print media, including the New York Times, the endless analysis pieces constantly trying to divine the state of the investigation with really not a whole lot to go on. I wonder, considering this exercise of putting cable and Twitter aside, whether you think you were well served by your news providers.
FARHAD MANJOO: I actually did not feel that the Mueller investigation is being over covered or overanalyzed or overhyped in print. The phenomenon you're describing comes about in part because of the way the media is covering those stories but also because of the way they’re distributing those stories. So [LAUGHS] the way that news comes to us now where your phone buzzes you, there’s an importance there, a conveyed importance from your news provider to you. And I think that news organizations are overdoing it. I mean, there were several times where I noticed push notifications for stories that weren't even on their front page the next day.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so [LAUGHS] I've had this conversation many, many times, always with someone who has just come out of rehab. They’re clean and sober.
They’re putting their past life behind them and that things are going to change. Are you back on Twitter?
FARHAD MANJOO: I’m still on there like kind of joking around but I try not to live my old life, which was like finding a news story, sharing a news story, discussing news stories. I’m trying to pull away from that. I got to say, it’s hard. It’s hard for two reasons. One because, like, I'm a journalist and I live in this culture of journalists and, like, the network of journalism happens on Twitter.
Number two, there is a lot I found about newspapers that I didn't like. I find the format a little bit inconvenient. It’s super expensive. You kind of feel guilty when they pile up. So I’m trying to find some non-newsprint way to still stay plugged in. Like, news apps are great. I look at, you know, the Times app and others once a day, and The Daily podcast boom has been great. And there’s also all these new newsletter news companies, like Axios, which I think are interesting. So I think there’s some way to live this life that I described that doesn’t require print. And I’m trying to do that. And I’m also trying to stay a little bit plugged in. But you’re right, I think there’s a danger that I’ll just like fall off the wagon and go back to my old ways --
-- because it’s very tempting.
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BOB GARFIELD: Well, Farhad, thank you.
FARHAD MANJOO: Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times.
Coming up, a strike strikes a nerve and a nostalgic chord. This is On the Media.