The trends are not encouraging. In 1978, 42 per cent of Americans reported that they had read 11 or more books in the past year. In 2014, just 28 per cent can say the same, while 23 per cent proudly admit to not having read even one, up from eight per cent in 1978. Newspaper and magazine circulation continues to decline sharply, as does viewership for cable news. The three big network supper-hour shows drew a combined average audience of 22.6 million in 2013, down from 52 million in 1980. While 82 per cent of Americans now say they seek out news digitally, the quality of the information they’re getting is suspect. Among current affairs websites, Buzzfeed logs almost as many monthly hits as the Washington Post.
Buzzfeed is hardly just a current affairs website, and last I checked did not swallow whole the contention that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that justified going to war, so maybe let up on the home of quizzes about what kind of kitten you are.
Newspapers, magazines and cable news are largely responsible for aiding and abetting the dumbing down the rest of the article laments. Giving time and ink to climate change deniers, gun nuts, anti-evolution whackjobs, outright white supremacists and pundits who last had an original thought in 1987 (and killed it in its cradle immediately) is what got us into this mess. Newspapers, magazines and cable news are prime conduits for the kind of “both sides do it” cynical equivalence that leads people who’d otherwise discern the difference between idiocy and intelligence to just throw up their hands in frustration. When the New York Times is peddling he said she said who can really tell anyway, pardon me if I decide that everyone sucks, but most especially the paper of record.
But hey, it must be the Internet’s fault:
The digital revolution, which has brought boundless access to information and entertainment choices, has somehow only enhanced the lowest common denominators—LOL cat videos and the Kardashians. Instead of educating themselves via the Internet, most people simply use it to validate what they already suspect, wish or believe to be true. It creates an online environment where Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy model with a high school education, can become a worldwide leader of the anti-vaccination movement, naysaying the advice of medical professionals.
The Internet did not make Jenny McCarthy a leader of the anti-vaccination movement. The anti-vaccination movement did that. Nor did the Internet pay Jenny McCarthy tens of thousands of dollars to write a column in — you guessed it! — a major metropolitan newspaper. You’ll pardon me if I stick with Buzzfeed.
This gets closer to the heart of things:
A study by two Princeton University researchers, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, released last month, tracked 1,800 U.S. policy changes between 1981 and 2002, and compared the outcome with the expressed preferences of median-income Americans, the affluent, business interests and powerful lobbies. They concluded that average citizens “have little or no independent influence” on policy in the U.S., while the rich and their hired mouthpieces routinely get their way. “The majority does not rule,” they wrote.
But why talk about the money and who’s spending it and who’s raking it in when you can hate on the Kardashians and LOLcats?
Talk about a dumbing-down.