Reading and writing are in a bad way. For six decades television has been changing social habits by cutting into the leisure of reading. For the past three decades the computer has accelerated this change with the same predictable result. Teaching and learning have suffered as “educrats” replaced the teacher with the machine. Now, a generation of teachers has reinforced this spiral into semi-literacy because it lacked reading and writing as learners. In 1996, I wrote an essay entitled “Making Technocrats” in which I researched the decline of the printed word. The decline has only gotten steeper. Television and computer learning are passive forms of learning. The difference between passive and active learning is profound. Reading and writing are active forms of learning. Reading and writing are inseparable. Reading and thinking are inseparable. The latest blow to the printed word is the demise of the daily newspaper. Little more than a generation ago, citizens would arise to the comforting smack of the newspaper on the front driveway and awaken with coffee over news, sports, comics, and society pages. They would return from the day’s labors to relax over the evening edition. As a free people, they depended upon a free press to keep the power-brokers honest. Now that shield is weakening. So the question is not really whether or not written text will survive as a communication medium. It must or what we write here won’t matter. The very fate of our democracy hangs in the balance.
Democracy depends upon a free flow of information. The late “Los Angeles Times” TV critic, Art Seidenbaum, observed the change as early as the 1970s when he opined, “Prime time itself describes a universe of shut-ins. Prime time used to be when people quit the day’s labors and went out among each other to eat, drink, or even serve good causes. Leisure was what a person wanted to do, not an exercise in being left alone with electronic.” In 1995, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, issued this warning in discussing the library’s plans to put its materials on the information superhighway, “Our democracy, and more than ever, our economic vitality depend upon the kind of active mind that the print culture – the culture of the book and of the newspaper – has historically nurtured, and that television, feeding an essentially passive spectator habit, does not (Tobin).
Democracy depends upon an informed middle class. There is no small irony in the fact that the sapping of our “economic vitality” which has, in part, derived from our estrangement from the print culture, is now contributing to the the further diminishment of the print culture. Now, big city newspapers across the country are either on the ropes or have simply vanished. In the past year or so, “The San Francisco Chronicle” has asked for emergency union concessions to keep going; “The Detroit Free-Press” has cut its publication to thrice weekley; “The Seatlle Post-Intelligencer, “The Rocky Mountain News,” and “The Tucson Citizen” have folded. “The Los Angeles Times,”The Chicago Tribune,” and “The Philadelphis Inquirer” have all sought bankruptcy protection (“Farewell”).
Democracy depends upon education. In 2008, Susan Jacoby’s book, “The Age of American Unreason,” offered an analysis of newspapers’ decline. She wrote, “The decline in newspaper reading after the early 70s was a miner’s canary for an accelerating and relentless abbreviation of the public’s attention span, now fragmented into millions of bits and bytes by the unlimited electronically and digitally generated distractions that make up our way of life (242-3).” She further explained the important distinction between content and context. Context determines content. Thus, “The willed attention demanded by print is the antithesis of the reflexive distraction encouraged by infotainment media, whether one is talking about tunes on a iPod, a picture flashing briefly on a home page, a text message, a video game, or the latest offering of ‘reality’ TV (243).”
Democracy depends upon critical thinking. Question everything. This is exactly the journalist’s imperative. In fact, the greatest American writing, and by extrapolation, the greatest American thinking came from journalism. Ernest Hemingway came to this conclusion when he observed that Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was the foundation of American thought and literature. Hemingway himself re-defined creative writing style. Brevity and clarity were his essence. Twain and Hemingway were both journalists. Other journalists, among thousands, without whom public trust would have been much diminished are Ambrose Beirce, H.L. Mencken, Mike Royko, and Molly Ivins. Are we now to forfeit their printed role and that of their worthy successors to the talking heads of the visual media. This would be a national tragedy. We need Maureen Dowd and Debra Saunders and George Will and E.J.Dionne and many others.
“The Columbia Journalism Review” asked the staffers of the defunct “Rocky Mountain News” to share some thoughts and reflections. Their responses are both wisdom and warning. Paul Glaviano, a copy editor, wrote, I really don’t know what many of these talented people here at the Rocky will find out there…but something people have been reluctant to talk about is the danger this presents for our democracy. If we think that politicians and big business special interests are robbing us now, just wait until the final demise of the watchdog press…There’s been a trend for decades toward infotainment in the press, but a goodly semblance of watchdog fervor has remained…Who will (now) watch the chicken coop?”
Dave Kopel, a media columnist joined in “…today evokes for me a picture of Italy around 450 A.D, with declining literacy and the crumbling of what used to be great institutions of civic engagement…We have a society that reads less and less, and which passively watches more and more video…At the same time when governments are growing more and more powerful, we are losing our checks and balances…A healthy society needs someone to guard us from the government ‘guardians.’ Newspapers have been far from perfect in performing this vital, protective civic role, but more protection is better than less…(‘Rocky’ 7-8).”
Democracy depends upon reading and writing. The arguments of these free-thinking scholars and journalists are Jeffersonian. Thomas Jefferson had an abiding faith that government is only legitimate by the consent of the governed. Consequently, an informed electorate is necessary to the survival of a free society. A free society is dependent upon a free press. We denigrate the print culture at our peril.
“Farewell ‘Seattle Post-Intelligencer,’ My Northwest.com. 17 March 2009. 6 April 2009.
Jacoby, Susan. “The Age of American Unreason.” Pantheon Press, New York: 2008
“Rocky Mountain Bye.” Columbia Journalism Review. 2 February 2008. 6 April 2009
Tobin, Brian G. “Making Technocrats.” (casual papers) 1996. firstname.lastname@example.org.