The nonreading public, and the media that serve it

George Will had a good piece yesterday. It offered multiple levels upon which you could enjoy it.

There was the headline, of course: “Josh Hawley, senator-as-symptom of a broken news business.” But it’s not really about that insufferable little twerp — although you may enjoy the link Will provides toward the end (rendered above in gif form), showing him skedaddling away from his good friends in the Jan. 6 mob. (Frank Bruni had some fun with that as well, in light of Hawley’s new book, which is, hilariously, about being a man.)

It was more about… well, here’s the most appropriate excerpt:

… (T)oday’s journalism has a supply-side problem — that is, supplying synthetic controversies:

“What did Trump say? What did Nancy Pelosi say about what Trump said? What did Kevin McCarthy say about what Pelosi said about what Trump said? What did Sean Hannity say about what Rachel Maddow said about what McCarthy said about what Pelosi said about what Trump said?”

But journalism also has a demand-side problem: Time was, journalists assumed that news consumers demanded “more information, faster and better.” Now, instantaneous communication via passive media — video and television — supplies what indolent consumers demand.

More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level. Video, however, requires only eyes on screens. But such passive media cannot communicate a civilization defined by ideas. Our creedal nation, Stirewalt says, “requires written words and a common culture in which to understand them.”…

The first part of that provides a certain understanding of what is wrong with today’s political journalism, and we can talk about that all day. Will employs the analogy I’ve used a gazillion time in recent decades about how reporters cover politics the way they would sports — there are only two sides to anything, and all we care about is which of the two wins, to the extent that we care.

Of course, that’s an insult to sports, the more I think about it. Actual sports contain far more nuance, variety, color and humanity than the ones-and-zeroes coverage we get of politics these days.

But the thing that really grabbed me was this one sentence:

More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level.

It grabbed me not simply because such low levels of literacy are distressing in themselves. It’s because of the larger point Will is making, which is that in an atmosphere of such plunging intellectual engagement, we’ve seen political journalism change “from reporting what had happened to reporting what was happening, and now to giving passive news consumers the emotional experience of having their political beliefs ratified.”

And that’s the essential problem, or at least one of the essential problems. To engage with politics meaningfully and constructively requires the active mental process of reading. The passive mob, engaged only to the extent of its members’ sense of identity with one of the two sides (and there can only be two, under the current rules of the stupid game), cannot possibly maintain a healthy, vital republic of the sort our Founders established.

To be a citizen, you can’t just twitch. Nor can you merely go about feeling strongly about this or that. You have to think. And of course, we don’t see very much of that anymore…


7 thoughts on “The nonreading public, and the media that serve it

  1. Doug+Ross

    “More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level.”

    And the majority of those people attended public schools which have abdicated their most basic responsibility to teach literacy for a hodgepodge of “feel good” pap.

    We’ve had 20+ years of standardized testing in SC and the net result has been worse outcomes for literacy. Illiterate kids are pushed along year after year. My close relative who teaches high school has 10th-12th graders who are unable to read an write.

    1. Doug Ross

      Allendale SC – report card data from the SC Dept of Ed:

      2008 – 41% of 4th graders scored below basic in Reading on PACT test
      2021 – 59% scored “does not meet expectations” on the English and Language Arts test

      This despite per student spending exceeding 150% of the state average EVERY SINGLE YEAR!

      These kids have been anchored into a failing system that denies there is a problem — except for blaming lack of funding. These students should be taught only two subjects until 6th grade: reading and math. With no advancement until they meet the standard.

      The problem is education bureaucrats and poor parenting – including those people who commit implicit child abuse by bringing children into this world who they are unable to care for.

      1. Bill

        “The lessons one learns at school are not always the ones the school thinks it’s teaching.”

      2. Doug Ross

        A child born in Allendale county today will most likely remain in poverty for his/her entire life. Until we convince / incentivise poor women to stop having children until they are capable of supporting them, the cycle will repeat.

        Pay women to delay having children. Pay parents bonuses when their kids pass the standardized tests and graduate. Far better for society than throwing money down the drain on public education nonsense.

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