How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? Do they have some secret? Perhaps. We are asking various friends and colleagues who seem well-informed to describe their media diets. This is from an interview with Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is available from HarperCollins.
Since we have two kids under the age of four, I don't really have time to sit down with my breakfast and the newspaper in the morning. Things are too hectic for that.
On Mondays I go up to New York to teach at CUNY, so I spend the mornings on the train. I'm often grading papers, but sometimes I'll read a little bit on my BlackBerry. Since I finished my book, I've been trying to read shorter, newsier things. When I'm in Washington at New America for the rest of the week, I read my BlackBerry on the bus or train in to work. I would say I probably read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico. I can usually digest a couple of things, and I tend to gravitate toward a category of fun and easy stories--for instance, various biographical pieces coming out about Elena Kagan, or politics horse-racing stories. Then I make sure I read my broccoli pieces, about what's happening in Iraq, for example, or Greece.
There was a period for a couple of years when I was writing my book when I was really not reading a lot of blogs or anything on a computer screen--I was basically just reading books. I was interested in how people wrote in book form, since it's such a challenge to keep a reader's attention.
As I was writing, I would periodically get this sense of panic that I was boring even myself. One book I went to a lot of times for inspiration was Whittaker Chambers's Witness. It's not that connected to my book thematically but it's such a brilliant piece of writing that I would open to a page and read a few paragraphs just for inspiration. It was a challenge to raise my game, to invest my sentences with genuine energy and authenticity and passion.
Other writers I turned to stylistically were Walter Lippmann and Randolph Bourne. Tom Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? is just a great, great book of writing. Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence, which is a fabulous piece of writing and fabulous conceptually. And Arthur Schlesinger's essay called The Politics of Hope. I also read a lot of Irving Kristol's commentary from the 1970s.
Now that I'm trying to read fewer books and more short-form stuff, I'm starting to surf the blogosphere a bit more. I often go to specific people on specific topics. I read Daniel Drezner at Foreign Policy on global policy and economics. He writes about things I don't understand but wish I understood better. In general I find that Foreign Policy's website has a good roundup of smart, provocative, current stuff about foreign policy. Sometimes I'll go to ESPN's Boston site and go specifically to their blogger who writes about the Patriots. That's my guilty pleasure, micro-blogging about my home team.
Since I took this job writing at the Daily Beast I tend to look at what they're doing most days, partly so I understand the publication better. Sometimes I'll go to National Review, just kind of anthropologically. It's interesting for me to see what conservatives happen to be interested in at that moment. I look at TNR, Andrew Sullivan--but I wouldn't say there's a really strict or clear routine in that regard.
If I'm in front of my computer at lunchtime, which is often, I watch various things. I have a little bit of a fetish for certain types of old debates you can find on YouTube. For instance, I like to watch old episodes of Firing Line, William F. Buckley's old show. There's one incredible clip where he debates Noam Chomsky in the late '60s. Maybe it's because my book was very historical, but I appreciate things that place me in a particular moment in time.
Since Obama took office, I've found both David Brooks and Paul Krugman very valuable to read. I would read pretty much anything Krugman wrote on international or domestic economics. And to me, Brooks is a columnist who works very hard. He's trying to define a conservatism that is more like the conservatism that existed several decades ago--a more humble conservatism like that of the publication The Public Interest.
Occasionally I'll take a look at The New Yorker, which tends to be around our house. If I'm getting on an airplane and don't have a lot of writing to do, I might buy the Economist. I like that it can kind of suck up a long period of time. It's less hit-and-miss than many other magazines--you know exactly what you're going to get.
There are smaller magazines that I like even though I don't get a chance to read them a lot: Dissent, the New York Review of Books. Those are a treat if I can find time to sit down and read a longer conceptual essay or something.
When my wife and I didn't have kids--it seems like a different universe now--we would sometimes take our dinner and sit in front of the TV and watch CNBC, MSNBC, PBS, or something like that. Now, that's not the way life works. Sunday morning there's no real way you could just sit there and watch a morning show in the chaos of our household.