I had just hopped on the treadmill when three of the TVs in Dillon Gymnasium lit up with the exact same press conference. President Trump’s doctor had just started answering questions about the President’s mental and physical health, and all of the major cable networks gave this press conference priority over other news.
But the last thing that I wanted to see as I huffed and puffed on the treadmill was another Trump flunky talking about the President’s greatness, followed by the talking heads of cable news commentators dissecting the results as if it were a post-game autopsy. This press conference even managed to kick off a “girther” movement, loosely defined as those who believe that the President is significantly more overweight and unhealthier than the doctor claimed.
Perhaps the constant stream of cable news might enrage some people enough to power through their workouts, but, frankly, I’ve had enough. It’s time to change the channels in Dillon from cable news to something more innocuous, like the Food Network. Or, better yet, we could just turn the TVs off altogether. We need to draw distinctions in our lives between the partisan and the nonpartisan.
A few weeks ago, Life Time Fitness, a Minnesota-based gym chain, made national news by announcing that it was going to eliminate all news channels from its TVs. Members still had the option of watching cable news networks on individual workout machines, but the large TVs in the gym showed lighter content from channels like HGTV or USA. In doing so, they argued that this was part of promoting the gym’s “healthy way of life” philosophy. The majority of the gym’s members had decided that they wanted to switch the TV channels to something more positive than the constant deluge of negative press on cable news, for they believed that maintaining a healthy body also required a healthy state of mind. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s indicative of our fiercely partisan culture that even the apolitical parts of our lives have become inundated by the fervor of our politics. Empirical analysis has demonstrated relationships between partisan media and political polarization. Partisan news media like the opinion shows that fill so much time on MSNBC and Fox News contribute to the sorting of Americans into different political camps — people prefer to watch what they find agreeable. Americans are even opting to sort into entirely different regions of the country based on their political affiliations. One would think that going to the gym shouldn’t be a partisan activity. But, in some ways, that’s what it has become.
For my part, I try to run on a treadmill on a side of the gym that is showing MSNBC or CNN, rather than Fox. I’d really prefer not to see Tucker Carlson screaming about immigration as I try to de-stress and disengage — even for an hour — from my time studying on campus. Likewise, a conservative person would probably pick a side of the gym where they don’t have to watch the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Amid our increasingly vitriolic partisan discourse, it is that much more important to find spaces to relax to take care of ourselves.
Now, by no means is this an argument to totally disengage from political discourse. We live in a particularly difficult moment for the news media. We face a president who unabashedly attacks the media, dismantling decades of democratic norms in the process. American faith in the news media has fallen to new lows. According to the Pew Research Center, only 11 percent of Republicans surveyed said that they believed information from national news organizations to be “very trustworthy.” 34 percent of Democrats in that same survey responded in the affirmative. This should be troubling for anyone with a passing interest in the news and the health of our democracy.
So, instead of disengaging, I encourage everyone to think more critically about the way that they view news media. If you’ve seen the Wall Street Journal’s “Red Feed, Blue Feed” infographic, you can see quite how easy it is to fall into a partisan trap in our consumption of the news, especially given the outsized role that Facebook and other social media now play as gatekeepers of public discourse. The need to view news critically is not mutually exclusive with the need to separate our partisan and nonpartisan lives.
Rather than writing this as an apologia for disengagement, I write this column as a plea for decency and civility in our politics — a way to rethink the way we live our lives. Some spaces simply shouldn’t be for political debates. Let’s start with the gym.
Nicholas Wu is a senior in the Wilson School from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.