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I’m traveling in Europe, and find that the combination of iPad + free wi-fi means that I end up reading the entire NYTimes and WSJ and Financial Times. At home, at most, I’ll skim all three.
Skimming, in fact, is the subject of this excellent piece in the NYTimes Sunday edition.
It’s a culture of skimmers and skippers, according to the author, and I think he has a point:
It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching “Mad Men” or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else’s live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks.
In his 1987 book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” E. D. Hirsch Jr. listed 5,000 essential concepts and names — 1066, Babbitt, Pickwickian — that educated people should be familiar with. (Or at least that’s what I believe he wrote, not having actually read the book.) Mr. Hirsch’s book, along with its contemporary “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom, made the point that cultural literacy — Mr. Bloom’s canon — was the bedrock of our agreed-upon values.
That’s true on both sides of the political aisle, unfortunately. Sometimes I’ll talk to fellow right-ish folks and I’ll be astonished at the way the conversation veers from facts and verifiable events to other, more superficial, things like “how this is playing in the media” and “the public image” or something. Meaning, don’t distract me with facts. Let’s talk about something more impressionistic, like “how it’s all playing with the voters.”
How do we know how anything is “playing” in the media? When did we all become media experts?
It reminds me of a time I was behind the one-way glass at a focus group conducted to evaluate the prospects of a new television series I was doing. “How did you like the show?” the group leader asked a woman in her mid-fifties.
“I think people in my demographic will like it a lot,” she replied.
“No, I mean, how did you enjoy it?” the leader asked again.
“There’s a lot in it that will appeal to people like me,” the woman replied.
She was incapable — or unwilling — to deliver a personal response. Okay, that’s not exactly what the NYTimes piece was pointing to, but the effect is the same. We all feel — I certainly do — that the meta-analysis of something is equal in value to an actual, genuine, answer.
In a lot of ways, this is what so bedevils the Obama administration. (It’s also what gave it such a popular lift in its first few years….)
They’re always shifting the discussion to the meta-analysis. They’re always shifting talk about Obamacare or Benghazi or Iran or unemployment from the facts on the ground — worse than expected, meretricious incompetence, a public lie — to the meta side, to the “Fox News and our enemies” side, to “the Tea-Party hostage Republican party.”
And they succeed, in part, because the NYTimes opinion piece is correct. People don’t read. They read about:
According to a recent survey by the American Press Institute, nearly six in 10 Americans acknowledge that they do nothing more than read news headlines — and I know this only because I skimmed a Washington Post headline about the survey. After we’ve skimmed, we share. Commenters frequently start their posts with TL;DR — short for Too Long; Didn’t Read — and then proceed to offer an opinion on the subject at hand anyway. As Tony Haile, the chief executive of the web traffic analytics company Chartbeat, recently put it, “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.” (He tweeted that.)
Makes sense. Especially for a Hashtag Presidency.