Damn the Media!

Tim Rich

Oh, I’ve done my share of camping.

But first, a prelude of sorts.  For most of my life I’ve been involved in politics.  Where so many people refuse to discuss politics, or simply rely on their base stereotypes (I’m Republican, I love guns, money, and God!  I’m a Democrat, I love homosexual marriage, Barack Obama, and anything labeled progressive!), I’ve actively become part of the process.  I work on campaigns.  I help get good people elected.  I am, at heart, a pragmatist, and as a pragmatist I realize that no party or politician has a monopoly on what is right or good.  There are benchmarks; there are things to weigh against other things.  Are tax cuts inherently bad?  Of course not.  Should we enact them just as we’re starting a war?  Probably not.  Is healthcare reform good?  Sure.  Is it good if it just funnels more money into an already broken system?


Now then, back to camping (the connections will become obvious, I assure you).  This year I’ve been on three extended camping trips.  In the summer months I try to camp, hike, and fish as much as possible.  I do this for many reasons, but most of all I do it to put a barrier between myself, my real inner self, and the rest of the world.  Just as important, I do it to put a barrier between my cell phone, my laptop, and me.

What is it exactly about the modern condition that keeps us so glued to our little devices?  The philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that societies create an image of God to convince themselves that they are safe and free from fear.  Whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  Religion serves the same purpose.  It allows rulers to solidify their powers.  It allows their subjects (or citizens) to take faith in a power that exists above and outside of them.  Hobbes believed that, in essence, humanity creates “Gods” to make our lives feel safer, yet we wind up with a power that overawes us.   Our creator doesn’t endow us, we endow it, and then we give it power.  Sound familiar?

The most recent of my three trips took me to Mount Blue State Park in Western Maine.  The state park was advertised as a rural campground where we would have the chance to swim, canoe, and hike in a rural setting.  Yet, from the minute we started our drive up there my girlfriend’s Blackberry started buzzing.  Every minute or two one of us were picking up the phone.  We were checking texts, work emails, Facebook, Tweets… and this was a vacation!

Personally I usually have little trouble shaking off technology.  I’ve spent enough time outside of the civilized world to believe that I “need” my devices less than most of my friends.  I’ve always taken the time to walk away.  Yet this time it proved more difficult.  For the first time, not having a cell signal or access to email left me feeling somehow lost.  I even took my phone 3,000 feet up to the top of a mountain so that I could at least check my voicemail (this I was sure to hide from my girlfriend, for I had just castigated her for her own technological addictions).
We were off the grid for only a week, yet when we returned we learned that John Hughes, the monumental director of hits such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, passed away.  Jermaine Jackson gave an interview all about his brother Michael’s estate where he all but admitted that Michael had fathered another, older son.  Keith Olbermann single handedly ended a carefully negotiated truce between Fox News and MSNBC.  Members of the U.S. Congress attempted to hold discussions with their electorate to discuss healthcare reform, but instead were shouted down by angry Republican activists.

And me?  I knew nothing of this.  I was in a media free world.  In five days I read an entire Saul Bellow novel.  Every morning I arose early and made coffee in my French press.  I cooked and ate well.  I helped teach a child to swim.  I kept dogs from falling out of canoes.  At night, I drank wine and ate toasted marshmallows as my girlfriend read aloud by the fires that I built.

Normally I write about media and the role that it plays in our society.  But this month I’m here to preach the doctrine of unplugging.  In a world where so much is constantly thrown at us, so many stories, tweets, so much personal opinion masqueraded as fact, it seems all but impossible to not lose our focus.  We created the modern media machine to entertain us, to help us, to inform us.  Yet after only a few days away it becomes obvious that we have created a beast that now overwhelms us.  Its positive influence in our life has become negligible; while it’s negative impact has become undeniable. 

When we returned from our trip, I turned on CNN for an hour to catch up on all that I missed.   The anchor spent more than five minutes reading viewers comments and more than half an hour handling fluff pieces.  And this is CNN!  “America’s most trusted news source!”  Its shift away from hard news may be more democratic, more American, but it is certainly less good.  In celebrating Tocqueville’s middling masses it does nothing but speak to our lowest denominator.  It does little to educate, to inspire, to… well, to inform.

It has been over 100 years since William Randolph Hearst used his newspaper chain to start the Spanish American war.  And yet sometimes it feels like America is still mired in the days of tabloid news.  People’s reliance on preprogrammed viewpoints that cater exclusively to them and their preconceived beliefs do not benefit any of us.  It allows people to rest on their laurels, to accept opinion as fact, and to allow blind rage to overcome public discourse.  This happens on the left and the right.  Perhaps before we start drawing Hitler moustaches and creating elaborate conspiracies about Henry Paulson’s Goldman Sachs connections, what we should do is take a little vacation.  Turn off the television, walk away from the iPhone.  Take some time to reflect, to think critically, to unlearn what you’ve learned.

Even a few days goes a long way.  Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Tim Rich is a freelance writer and man about town based in Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine.  He is a professional political activist.  He spends his free time hiking, reading, and preparing for the National Toboggan Championships, which he fully intends to win.