In a world of endless information, it's only natural to wonder how others manage their media lives. In the first of an occasional series of conversations with leading figures in government, politics, and other spheres, National Journal's William Powers asked Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who runs America's first great information outlet, about his own media choices.
NJ: I'm interested in your media habits, the publications, broadcasts, websites, and other media fare that you consume on a regular basis. Let's go through the day -- what do you see or hear first?
Billington: I usually skim The Washington Post over breakfast, maybe 15 or 20 minutes. I think the edit and the op-ed page of The Post is very good. It's well written, and it's varied. I admire brilliant analysis, which is very rare but it does happen.
NJ: What about driving to work?
Billington: Music, NPR. The music keeps me from road rage. It usually helps me maintain a reasonable degree of humanity.
NJ: And at the office?
Billington: I get an awful lot of information here at the library. I skim the newspapers, but I don't read any newspapers all the way through. Of course I look at The New York Times. I look at The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. The Washington Times, too; that can be very helpful with information I wouldn't get elsewhere. I think daily newspapers are still very important. My media habits are like my book habits. I wolf through a great many things. I'm a fairly fast reader. I prefer to have a lot of inputs. I don't have time to read magazines. I have three or four friends around the country, and they send me, irregularly, things they think I ought to read. They know my interests.
NJ: No magazines at all?
Billington:The Week. I read that religiously because I find it's very efficient and it gives me a spectrum of opinion.
NJ: Any Web browsing at the office?
Billington: We get Google alerts and things like that from a variety of Web sources. What generally happens is, I don't spend too much time searching myself. My key associates take things down or relate them to me verbally. I try to see other papers from around the country and around the world. I have a special interest in Russia. I don't think [U.S.] media coverage of Russia is very good. It's the general problem of the decline of international coverage by American outlets, so you have to go to the foreign outlets themselves. If I get an inkling that there are things going on, I will go to some of my favorite European papers. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Swiss daily, is probably one of the best in Europe, if not the best. I will occasionally look at Le Monde in Paris. I've been reading Le Monde off and on for 60 years.
NJ: In the evening when you come home, do you read or watch anything habitually?
Billington: I will watch the evening news.
NJ: Any one show that you like best?
Billington: I switch around. Whenever I can, I avoid the drivel stories. I switch immediately when it turns to Britney Spears or these other ridiculous things. [Jim] Lehrer I try to watch, of course, at 7. I switch back and forth between Fox and MSBNC, and occasionally the networks, occasionally CNN. Once they get into an endless discussion of the trivia of the day, I switch to see if there's any news.
NJ: Do you have an iPod?
NJ: Do you go to YouTube?
NJ: If you weren't the Librarian of Congress, is there a media outlet that you would like to work for or run?
Billington: I founded the Wilson Quarterly. That's kind of my ideal, something that filters.... I might conceivably do a journal of culture. Culture is not generally well covered in this country. Take, for example, what the Internet is doing to our culture.... The whole thing is a kind of contest to see who can be the most shocking rather than deepening our perspective. I could well see myself in another life, if I were given one, trying to foster some deep thinking about that and some reflection on what we do with our freedom. But this job I have now is to make sure people read. That's why I'm least dependent, of all media, on television. I'm basically a book and print man.
NJ: You're about to celebrate, in September, 20 years as the Librarian. Congratulations.
Billington: Well, thank you. Our vision of the future of the library is to make it a "knowledge navigator," so that we navigate traditional culture and make creative use of the new information culture, which has its own virtues.... You add without subtracting. You've got to be able to add the new without destroying the old.