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Turning off the news

Good Monday morning Fellow Seekers of Wisdom and Truth (and appropriate Martin Luther Kingly wishes to all),

There’s a temptation among the news-obsessed (like you and me) to feel a little superior to those who don’t devote much time to keeping up on those topics that newsies follow. And, cynicism and misanthropy aside, I still cling (more sentimentally than rationally) to the old model of the informed electorate as the backbone of democracy. But we’re kidding ourselves.

(Every couple of years I dredge the anecdote of poll story I wrote in 1998 in which the Strib’s Minnesota Poll asked people to name their two U.S. Senators — Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams at the time. Twenty percent of Minnesotans — Minnesotans for criminy sakes — could name them both.)

But there’s a goodly body of evidence that the problem is getting worse, and that fewer Americans know the basic stuff of the news than was true a generation ago. Television, then cable news, and now the internet — all of which have the capability to disseminate news and information more widely than ever before — have all contributed to making it worse.

All of which is just to introduce an excerpt from the piece by Princeton Prof. Paul Starr In the current Atlantic. Starr, among his specialties, has paid a lot of attention to journalism history and he traces it in this excellent short essay:

“From the founding era to the late 20th century, the news in America enjoyed an expanding public. In the 1800s, postal policies and advances in printing technology cut the price of the printed word and, together with wider access to education, enabled more Americans to read newspapers and become civically literate. In the 20th century, radio, newsreels at the movies, and television extended the reach of the news even farther.

It was only reasonable to assume, then, that the digital revolution would repeat the same pattern, and in some respects it has; online news is plentiful and (mostly) free. But a basic rule of communication is that abundance brings scarcity: an abundance of media creates a scarcity of attention. So although journalists and politicians have new ways to reach the public, the public has acquired even more ways to ignore them. Politics and other news are at our fingertips, but a lot of us don’t want to go there. Between 1998 and 2008, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who say they don’t get the news in any medium on an average day rose from 14 percent to 19 percent—and from 25 percent to 34 percent among 18-to-24-year-olds. And 2008 was a year when interest in the news should have been relatively high.”

The Starr essay, titled “Governing in the Age of Fox News,” is about many things in addition to the gloomy data above, but it was the paragraph that hit me hardest.

Anything you can do to convince a young person to get the lifetime habit of caring about what’s going on in their community, their country and their world, will be much appreciated.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Roy Everson on 01/18/2010 - 12:56 am.

    It’s bad enough that so many “voters” ignore a regular diet of news. But many who do consume news are fed on empty calories, found in any commercial network newscast, cable news, local TV news.

    Then you have a plethora of right-wing media outlets like Fox and which are little more than propaganda, emitting a bizarro-world of information turned upside down– distorting history, current events and commentary to assure a poorly fed supply of reactionary voters for the next election. How many in the Tea Party movement realize that “taxation without representation” has nothing to do with their theft of an American icon?

    How many Bush voters in 2004 were aware that WMD were never found in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11? About 50-55%. The rest of them cast votes based on myth.

    Oops, I guess I’m not adding anything constructive here. Suffice it to say that when parents subscribe to a daily newspaper and habitually watch the news, kids get the message–without being told– that following current events is a vital aspect of making a democracy work.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 01/18/2010 - 08:17 am.

    Iz for 1 git allz mi news from jess the boud vinturaa and kunspiracy theery gut a prublem wit dat fella!

  3. Submitted by John E Iacono on 01/18/2010 - 10:11 am.

    If we are to urge our children to “watch the news” it seems to me something will have to be done about the “news” we ask them to watch.

    It might be a good thing for both the national and local media to adopt a new policy: “If there is no news, cut the program short. Give the essentials of what is truly current, and then shut up.”

    Of course, they COULD take the time to really explain an item to provide some insight as the earlier generations of news anchors used to do. Of course that might mean not being “first”, as though anyone cares who is “first.”

    Our younger generation is impatient with “blah blah blah” for the sake of filling a time slot. Even I, a lifelong news junkie” now turn off the local news after the first few minutes, and the national “news hours” are hardly that when they can tell you days ahead of time what they will be talking about.

    It might help if the not-new news was not a continual rehashing of things we have all heard so many times before they have become boring.

    It might help if the anchors would just stay at their desks instead of running around the world for photo ops: “Me in Afghanistan”…”Me in Haiti”…”Me in a snow drift” — the show is NOT about them (or it shouldn’t be).

    It might help if the “news” had less of one talker making a controversial half true or partially true statement only to have the other talked say “That’s exactly right…”

    It might help if the items selected for coverage and the way they are treated did not reveal obvious bias. (PBS,NBC,CBS all prime examples)

    It might help if they stopped saying “Exclusively..” when we just saw the same person interviewed on another channel, also claiming “Exclusively…” Goes to credibility.

    It might help if they stopped advertising their great “scoops” when they are only tempests in a tea pot of their own making.

    It might help if the print media would abandon advocacy journalism and give us the facts — just the facts — well researched and neutrally presented as EB used to do.

    But as the “news” media currently exists, it would embarrass me to tell my kids that watching was a civil duty.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/18/2010 - 10:18 am.

    You’re right John — most of the MSM are biased towards the conservative end of the spectrum.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/18/2010 - 12:30 pm.

    I stopped watching local news (both in Oregon and here) when it turned into nothing but crimes, fires, weather, sentimentality, and sports.

    When CNN first got started, it was a superb source of world news, things that you didn’t hear about from the networks. The last time I looked in on it, it was all celebrity gossip, sensationalism, and talking heads allowed to blather on without the reporters or anchors challenging them.

    I used to love Newsworld International, which used mostly Canadian content. It was the only station I could stand to watch during the invasion of Iraq, the only one that wasn’t cheerleading. Its international coverage was outstanding, but that all ended when Al Gore bought it and turned it into The CurrentTV, a compendium of videos by viewers.

    The Strib is getting dumber by the day, and the New York Times is thoroughly Establishment (whether the current Establishment is Democratic or Republican).

    If news outlets want intelligent people to watch or read them, they have to provide intelligent content.

    Look at Britain. Their tabloids outdo ours in sheer idiocy, but their mainstream newspapers are full of in-depth coverage and intelligent commentary. Even the Times, the most conservative of the mainstream papers, is written for intelligent conservatives, not for the local knuckle draggers.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/18/2010 - 05:10 pm.

    The Guardian, The Observer, the BBC – all provide what seems to be unbiased news straighforwardly presented, and C-Span offers governmental coverage and call-ins. Without such as the Pentagon-employed retired military officers who presented their version of events in which our armed forces were involved.

    I try never to miss Amy Goodman to get the real news, especially background and historical information.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/18/2010 - 06:15 pm.

    When I was in my teens (about twenty years ago) I watched the evening news most nights and caught at least a half hour of HNN every day.. Job schedules changed that and I switched over to newspapers. Every once in a while I switch on the news again and am shocked at how poor a job they do at presenting a full story. Very little context, never complete views. For that I have to go to the internet.
    Too much celebrity blather. Too many thinly disguised pundit wannabees as news-readers. All frosting, no cake. Contrary to Karen, I think that the local stuff is better because it’s more straight reporting. I doubt that the national people could adopt the same model though.
    Bernice, I disagree about both BBC and the Guardian (which I happen to look at regularly). I wouldn’t describe either one as unbiased. Certainly not in their presentation and selection of stories. They (like MSNBC on this side of the pond) cater to their leftist readers opinions. Probably much the same way that FNC caters to it’s watchers.
    Objective, non-biased media is probably a myth.

  8. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 01/19/2010 - 08:49 am.

    I think self-reports of “newslessness” aren’t completely accurate either. Here’s a thought experiment – actively try to _avoid_ all news for a day or two. That means all news – sports news, websites like Yahoo with news headlines, etc. Really try to avoid news, and I think you’ll see were really rather swimming in it. What we lack is sustained engagement with the news, thought about the news, synthesizing the news with history and analysis.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/19/2010 - 10:36 am.

    Peder (#7) — Yes, but they honestly present themselves as having a liberal point of view. I find liberal news sources/writers generally less likely to accept what they are told by government or military spokespeople without doing some serious fact checking and reporting on what they found.

    Our military, for instance, has stopped releasing the numbers of civilians killed by drones in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but the BBC or Al-Jazeera have not. Nor do they ever pretend that Israel’s actions against Gaza were “self defense” rather than war crimes.

    Nor are they ignoring the fact that Cuban and Venezuelan doctors were the first medical help to arrive in Haiti and actually set up a mobile hospital, as our mainstream media report mostly on the U.S. military and its work there.

  10. Submitted by John E Iacono on 01/19/2010 - 11:07 am.

    #4-Paul B:

    I suppose it depends on how one defines conservative.

    If anything right of the furthest stretch left is conservative, I guess you are right.

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