How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from a phone conversation with Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American religion scholar, writer, and author of Zealot, who spoke to us last month about the aftermath of his viral interview with Fox News.
The first thing I read in the morning is my Twitter feed. It's funny, because I found myself in the strange position where rather than actually reading the articles that my favorite journalists write in the newspaper, I just follow their Twitter feeds and find out what's going on before they have a chance to write it and before it comes out in the newspaper. Twitter is not a communication tool—it's my primary source of information about what's going on in the world.
Of course, this is an old story. When this really came home for me was during the 2009 Green Revolution. My partners and I were staying up all day and night on Facebook, on Twitter, coordinating with people on the ground in Tehran and other parts of the city—feeding news stories to traditional outlets, trying to verify reports as they were coming in. We were doing this for days on end with barely any sleep. And I remember this moment because it was so instrumental for me. The entire time in the background is CNN and the 24-hour cable news networks. At one point CNN, in a breaking news segment, begins to talk about what's happening on the ground in Iran. And it was remarkable: rather than reports about the situation—from Tehran or from a neighboring country—on the CNN TV screen was the same Facebook feed that I had on my computer two hours ago. I don't mean someone was reporting on the Facebook feed. I mean it was just the Facebook feed! It was a camera pointed at the Facebook feed. What you're calling breaking news is just simply what I saw on my Facebook page an hour ago. That was kind of the moment it all just became reality for me.
My particular problem is that I mostly live on the West Coast. I wake up pretty early because I have young kids. Nevertheless, by the time I pick up my computer or my phone, it's already 10:00 in the morning on the East Coast. My mornings are spent simultaneously waking up, feeding and dressing my kids, and sort of catching up on what happened while the East Coast was awake and the West Coast was asleep. Until about 10:00 my time, it's just catch-up. Then, usually by around 10 Pacific Time, I'm ahead of the game. Now I can start commenting, now I can start talking about what's ahead. The next three or four hours is getting ahead of the news and trying to comment on it. By the time I catch up with what's going on, the media requests for me to comment on it have begun. For instance, today the media requests started to come in about an hour ago [which would have been about 11 a.m.]: "Can you talk about Egypt? Can you talk about the new Iranian president's foreign minister?"
For Iran, Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times is fantastic. I'm glued to his Twitter feed. It's great to be able to read his firsthand account. It's almost like the first draft to the piece The New York Times is going to run tomorrow. That's how I think of Twitter.
I scour the top five articles on Foreign Policy every single day. Foreign Affairs—less on a daily basis, but certainly it's important to keep track of the articles coming out. And then I just have constant access to the Council on Foreign Relations website. For me, that's the source. I'm constantly looking at the CFR because it's not just original pieces by council fellows—it's also an aggregate of their articles. So if I want to know what Steven Cook thinks about what's happening in Egypt, I could go find his latest article in The Atlantic or Time or whatever, or I could just go to CFR and there it is.
I used to be an over-subscriber to magazines. There was a time maybe four years when—and I'm not exaggerating here—I had anywhere between 18 and 20 subscriptions to magazines and newspapers. I've whittled that down to two: The Economist and Entertainment Weekly. EW to figure out what's going on in culture and entertainment. The Economist to figure out what's going on in every other part of the world. I truly believe those are the only two news sources that you need.
I get The Atlantic feed via email—but there's also a weekly one, too. I get two different ones. And The Daily Beast cheat sheets. Certainly the Foreign Policy [email] feed. And the Foreign Affairsfeed.
I keep meaning to listen to podcasts. I actually downloaded and subscribed to a bunch of podcasts always thinking I would listen to these things—and it never happens. The thing is in Los Angeles, you spend a lot of time in your car. And when I'm in my car, I immediately put on NPR to find out what's going on—and I never switch it off. I think in New York I would listen to these podcasts more, while walking around or getting onto the subway.
If you had asked me what my homepage was a year ago, I'd be able to answer it instantly, but now my primary access to the web is my phone, so I don't even know. I'm not even sure I care. My access to the web comes from my phone, not from my computer. If I have my computer open, it's because I'm typing something. We can't even plug in our phones in in the bedroom [at night] because they go off nonstop with alerts and Twitter and texts. For some reason, people on the East Coast don't realize that we on the West Coast don't wake up at 5:00 in the morning. I start getting texts starting at 5 a.m. The household is such that phones have to be plugged in upstairs, not downstairs in the bedroom.
I watch The Daily Show every night. I wouldn't say I watch it purely for fun, because it's actually a source of news for me. What's remarkable about The Daily Show is I will go through a day consuming the world's news from maybe a half-dozen sources—from Twitter to The New York Times to NPR to CNN. And then, at 11:00, when I sit down in front of The Daily Show, they still manage to break some story that I haven't heard. Which is remarkable! That's what's remarkable about The Daily Show—they're a legitimate source of breaking news.
I'm also kind of a Game of Thrones geek. And I'm not ashamed to say it. I'm halfway through book six! That's the only time I ever get to do anything for myself, the last half hour before I fall asleep. My wife and I have dinner and get to talk a little bit. We watch The Daily Show. Then it's time for bed. I get 30 minutes where it's like, "I don't want to talk about the geopolitics of the Middle East. I don't want to talk about Jesus, that's for sure." Instead, I get to talk about dragons.