In another strange time in American history, the counterculture guru Timothy Leary urged people to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Five decades later, it’s time for quite a different formula. In the era of fake news causing real trouble, and of the news media under fire for sins both justified and exaggerated, the better advice is this: Tune in and stay that way.
Since the election of Donald Trump one month ago, and the rush of news that has followed, I’ve heard many people say they need to take a break from what’s happening day-to-day.
Call it news fatigue. They don’t want to hear the latest upsetting developments: For example, the president-elect has nominated for national security adviser a general who pushes conspiracy theories, and a climate change denier to head the EPA. And, separate from the news itself, many people don’t trust the media to be an impartial messenger.
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As if more proof were necessary of the pollution in the media ecosystem, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg agreed, in a TV appearance Thursday, that fake news and willful propaganda are a serious issue, and that social media platforms need to take action. (She added that she does not believe it swayed the election results, a hard-to-prove matter of opinion.)
One political journalist I know described what it’s like to report news at this moment: It’s like covering a “live shooter” situation, she said, but it continues day after day, with no end in sight.
What’s a responsible citizen to do?
Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative who ran for president this year as an independent, has some good advice. He sees the president-elect as dangerous — with some of the same authoritarian behaviors as the dictatorial strongmen whose reigns McMullin saw in his posts around the world.
As he tries to begin building a new conservative movement, McMullin this week wrote a New York Times opinion piece and a 10-part Twitter series. Here’s No. 2: “Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well-informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.” And be engaged: “Write, speak, act.”
There are positive signs that some Americans are tuning in. The New York Times and The Washington Post say subscriptions have soared since the election. ProPublica, the investigative-journalism nonprofit, reports a spate of donations.
One Post reader wrote to me recently asking how her family’s foundation could help defend reporters against potential legal challenges. After conferring with Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, I suggested she consider a donation to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She got back to me to say that they had done just that — to the tune of $10,000.
None of this is to suggest that the mainstream media, the “legacy press,” is faultless. It certainly isn’t, as is made abundantly clear in a new report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, “How the Press Failed the Voters.” Examining campaign coverage by major newspapers and television networks, it makes a powerful case that the media often trafficked in false equivalencies between the two major candidates and focused too little on substance.
In short, there’s plenty of blame to go around in this unsettled and unsettling moment. But the answer, surely, isn’t to play the ostrich card.
Which brings us back around to Timothy Leary, who offered another piece of advice that holds up better than the one mentioned earlier: Think for yourself and question authority.
Keen awareness — and critical thinking — will matter more than ever in the days ahead. It might be tempting, but whatever you do, don’t drop out.