Since I became The Washington Post’s media columnist in 2016, I’ve developed a habit of asking people, wherever I travel, how they get their news.
In keeping with that, I had a brief chat last weekend in Sarasota, Florida, with a middle-aged man (a local used-car salesman, he said).
“Pretty much just from here,” was how he answered my question, indicating his smartphone. When I dug for specifics, he mentioned Fox News.
The impeachment hearings, which that day had offered riveting testimony from diplomat Marie Yovanovitch? He merely shrugged: Didn’t know, didn’t care.
That plenty of Americans share this apathy about what’s happening in their government is appalling, but hardly shocking.
Many clearly do care, as the movement of public opinion favoring impeachment suggests, but there’s a whole category that pollsters and pundits call “low-information voters.”
The New York Times published a story Monday with this headline: “‘No one believes anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News.” The reporters quoted a Wisconsin woman who said she didn’t know what to think of the various conflicting claims she’d heard about President Donald Trump’s apparent abuse of power.
“You have to go in and really research it,” she said, and she doubted that many people cared enough to do that.
David Roberts, writing in Vox this week, explored “tribal epistemology” — the idea that “what’s good for our tribe” has become more important than facts, evidence and documentation. He identifies a crisis that “involves Americans’ growing inability, not just to cooperate, but even to learn and know the same things, to have a shared understanding of reality.”
Roberts, the Times article and Florida Man all point to the same thing: A lot of Americans don’t know much and won’t exert themselves beyond their echo chambers to find out.
This is the way a democracy self-destructs.
And what’s more, it’s not that difficult for American citizens to do much, much better.
Granted, the flow of news is unending — exhausting, even. And granted, there’s a lot of disinformation out there.
But apathy — or giving in to confusion — is dangerous.
“I’m terrified that the idea that it is all too much and it is OK to tune out is getting socialized as an acceptable response,” said Dru Menaker, chief operating officer of PEN America, the free-expression advocacy organization.
“Our country is being challenged to its very core, and we have an obligation to pay attention precisely because things are so overwhelming,” she told me by email.
I couldn’t agree more. And it’s not really all that hard to develop some constructive news habits.
It doesn’t take a research project into every claim and counterclaim.
If every American did any two of the following things, the “who knows?” club could be swiftly disbanded.
Subscribe to a national newspaper and go beyond the headlines into the substance of the main articles; subscribe to your local newspaper and read it thoroughly — in print, if possible; watch the top of “PBS NewsHour” every night; watch the first 15 minutes of the half-hour broadcast nightly news; tune in to a public-radio news broadcast; do a simple fact-check search when you hear conflicting claims.
For those who can’t afford to subscribe to newspapers, almost all public libraries can provide access.
“Whatever the president wants us to believe, there are tested and reliable news sources,” Menaker noted. “There are even more firsthand sources than ever where you can judge yourself — links to documents, video clips, hours of televised testimony.”
If every American gave 30 minutes a day to an earnest and open-minded effort to stay on top of the news, we might actually find our way out of this crisis.
As Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, noted Tuesday on Twitter, it was on Nov. 19, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln challenged his fellow citizens to rise to a “great task.”
Americans must dedicate themselves to ensuring, Lincoln urged in the Gettysburg Address, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
So, too, in this historic moment.
After all, authoritarianism loves nothing more than a know-nothing vacuum: People who throw up their hands and say they can’t tell facts from lies.
And democracy needs news consumers — let’s call them patriotic citizens — who stay informed and act accordingly.
Flag-waving is fine. But truth-seeking is what really matters.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.