Two weeks ago, in a bold personal experiment, I went off the grid. Not off the electrical grid, like some granola-munchers and survivalists do, but off the news grid.
I had some vacation coming. I realized I needed it when I found myself lecturing a friend that Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was presented to an empty chair in Norway, not an empty chair in Sweden, and saying how could anyone possibly not know that the Peace Prize was a Norwegian deal and the rest of the Nobel Prizes were a Swedish deal?
At the time I went off the grid, I was actually losing sleep over the issue of whether I’d written that the benchmark for the richest 2 percent of Americans was $250,000 per couple in income or $250,000 in taxable income.
Knowing obscure stuff like this is an occupational hazard. Obsessing about it to the point where you begin to think it actually matters to most people or you begin to lose sleep is a sign that it’s time to take a vacation.
So I let the newspapers pile up like plastic-wrapped cordwood. I flipped past the news channels on TV. I ignored all the bookmarked sites on my home computer. I made an exception for sports, so I could watch the NFL and have something to listen to on the car radio. But as for the rest of the news, it was dead to me.
Here are my stunning findings: It is completely possible to live without knowing anything about what’s going on. In fact, in many ways it’s better because there are fewer things to worry about. Life is hard enough without worrying about whether the Senate will ratify New START, an arms treaty with Russia.
Now, maybe this is because I happened to pick an excellent week to go off the grid. Had I gone off the grid, say, the week of Sept. 9-15, 2001, I might have regretted the decision.
But when I came back onto the grid last week, I discovered the following shocking news:
• The Cancun summit on climate change ended without much progress.
• A conservative federal judge ruled parts of the health care reform bill unconstitutional.
• The Senate reached a compromise with President Barack Obama on extending tax cuts for everyone, including the aforementioned richest 2 percent.
• Korea is a tinderbox.
• Missouri’s Board of Healing Arts is soft on doctor discipline.
Also, Richard Holbrooke and Blake Edwards had died, and “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had been repealed.
The only one of these that surprised me was the last one. I had figured that cranky old Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would have prevented it from coming to a vote.
The death of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was a loss. I used to obsess about Holbrooke because I thought he had a real chance of brokering a deal in central Asia. But I admit to feeling the loss of Blake Edwards more keenly. This was the man who made the “Pink Panther” movies.
It’s not news that many people find it possible to live without the news. Since 1989, the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press had been surveying Americans’ knowledge about major news events.
The general conclusion: The advent of 24-hour news and news on demand through the Internet hasn’t had much impact. Let’s assume that the baseline question is, “Who is the vice president of the United States?”
In 1989, 74 percent of those surveyed correctly answered Dan Quayle. In 2007 (the last time a full survey was conducted) 69 percent correctly answered Dick Cheney. Because Quayle and Cheney were both in the news a lot (though for different reasons), and because these were multiple choice questions, the obvious conclusion is that at any one time, 26 to 31 percent of Americans don’t have a clue.
Since being off the grid, I now know this doesn’t matter. People can live full and rich lives without the news. I just wish they didn’t get to vote.