Erik Hagerman has been living under a self-imposed news blackout since shortly after the 2016 presidential election. His stance—and his simple life near Athens, Ohio—drew the attention of The New York Times, which ran a profile of him under the headline “The Man Who Knew Too Little” and this subhead: “The most ignorant man in America knows that Donald Trump is president—but that’s about it. Living a liberal fantasy is complicated.”
Nearly a thousand comments poured in, many deriding Hagerman and noting that only a wealthy white guy—Hagerman used to be a digital commerce executive for Nike—has the latitude to practice such willful apathy. I first saw the article when a friend posted it on Facebook, noting its dateline. (We both went to college at Ohio University.) One of her friends commented, “It’s a weird kind of privilege to be able to simply opt out of paying attention or participating.” I replied, “Oh, he’s definitely paying attention.”
Hagerman’s news boycott (he calls it The Blockade) was the story’s obvious hook, but to me, the most interesting part was how two years before he gave up the news, Hagerman had decided to Thoreau-ly simplify his life. He bought some land and makes art. He travels into town every day to visit his favorite coffee shop. He still follows the Cleveland Cavaliers and reads art reviews in The New Yorker. Photos accompanying the story show a man who drives a practical car and has clean, simple furniture.
With more time on his hands once he began his Blockade, Hagerman decided last summer to buy 45 acres of strip-mined land that nature has reclaimed. “Mr. Hagerman sees this land as his life’s work,” Sam Dolnick wrote in the Times article. “He plans to restore it, protect it, live on it and then preserve it for the public.” Hagerman envisions a giant barn that’ll feel like a cathedral, plus loads of art installations. “He wouldn’t exactly put it this way, but he talks about the land in part as penance for the moral cost of his Blockade,” Dolnick added. “He has come to believe that being a news consumer doesn’t enhance society. He also believes that restoring a former coal mine and giving it to the future does.”
I understand Hagerman’s desire to run away. Although I’ve spent most of my career in journalism, I made an extended detour into politics starting with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when I became one of the nation’s first political bloggers, a pursuit that led to a string of paid campaign work. After I’d left a particularly toxic job, my minister told me to call her if I ever again was tempted to take another political post. My soul was at risk, she said. I understood what she meant.
Alas, not long after that, I became communications director of the Idaho teachers’ union. I thought: How political could that be? My predecessor had been on the job for decades, but not long after I started, the state schools superintendent launched a campaign of punitive school reform efforts that made national news. I spent two fulfilling yet exhausting years defending hard-working educators who were suddenly being demonized by a politician who wanted to privatize and monetize Idaho’s schools. After a stint with a nonprofit organizing faith communities to combat climate change—there’s no politics in that!—I had finally learned my lesson.
These days, I like to write about travel, the arts, creative aging—pretty much anything but politics. I identify with Erik Hagerman’s desire for simplicity, but a news blackout won’t work for me. Instead, I’ve learned to ration my media intake and be as intentional as I can be in sating my curiosity so I can be an informed voter and engaged citizen.
Here’s my usual routine: I get up early each morning to read and write (mostly offline) and watch the sun come up. I listen to a few minutes of NPR and KUOW while I make breakfast. I read some of the print edition of the Seattle Times over lunch and look at The New York Times’ website in the evening.
Like many people, I find that social media can be my Achilles’ heel, so I try to stay especially vigilant over how I use it. I’m not immune to the occasional diversionary scroll through Facebook or Twitter, but I try to recognize when my likes and shares have become mindless, and that’s my cue to log off. I almost never watch TV news. Even with the probable Russian use of social media to manipulate our last election, I believe the cable networks and caustic entertainer-pundits on both wings of the political spectrum bear large responsibility for our divided, dysfunctional culture.
I know that sometimes it’s useful to shake up my routine even more, so a few times a year, I try to unplug from the news as completely as I can. I did so this spring while volunteering in a remote part of Scotland where what little power we had—all wind and solar—was used to heat water and cook food, not charge electronics. Using a rare wi-fi connection to check in with my sweetheart before my phone’s battery wore down, I still managed to hear about James Paxton’s no-hitter for the Seattle Mariners. But otherwise, I was able to live without knowing any news at all for more than a week.
The upshot of this media rationing is that I am a far happier person than I was when I was immersed in politics. I look forward to updates on Erik Hagerman’s Midwestern version of Walden Pond; I may even want to visit it someday. Yet as wrenching as it can be to see the hard news we get every day, I don’t want to miss the signs of hope, like teens rising up against gun violence and advances against poverty, war, and disease.
This balanced approach extends to my activism. I’m no longer organizing or agitating or marching on a regular basis, but I still vote. When I had the chance to sign a petition to seek a vote on universal health care in Washington, I did so gladly and thanked the nurse who was gathering signatures. When the state legislature tried to close public records, I joined the legions of people urging the governor’s veto.
I’m glad I no longer marinate in the news and the woes of the world the way I once did. I won’t go off the grid; I’ve simply decided to resist information saturation and emotional overload, knowing the great world will spin on without my engagement in every issue.
Julie Fanselow is a writer living near Seattle and the author of Surely Joy: Reflections from a Simple, Beautiful Life, available at Third Place Books. Read more from her at surelyjoy.blogspot.com.