Viewpoint

Now more than ever, we must stay informed

Evan McMullin, who ran for president this year as an independent, has good advice on staying informed.
Evan McMullin, who ran for president this year as an independent, has good advice on staying informed. AP

In another strange time in American history, counterculture guru Timothy Leary urged people to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Five decades later, it’s time for 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, 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. And, separate from the news itself, many people don’t trust the media to be impartial.

As if more proof were necessary of the media ecosystem pollution, 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 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 now: 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 build 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 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 told me she did just that – to the tune of $10,000.

None of this is to suggest the mainstream media, the “legacy press,” is faultless. It certainly isn’t, as is made 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 the media often traffficked 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 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.

Margaret Sullivan is the Washington Post’s media columnist.

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