Another excerpt from “The Stupidity Epidemic” draft. As previously mentioned, please feel free to leave constructive edits, comments and criticisms on this post.
I was 13-years-old when I became a newspaper junkie. It started with the Sunday funnies and progressed to reading about the Bruins and Red Sox in the Boston Globe’s sports section. By the time I reached college the habit progressed to most of the words in most of the sections of two or three newspapers each day. I had always loved to read and had been told by teachers I was a good writer, so I was, in a sense, always doomed to spend part of my career as a reporter.
But things were simpler in 1986 when the Globe made a much fatter thud when it was dropped on our front porch by Duane B — — — -k and I would have to try to read as much of the paper as possible before heading off to Melrose Junior High School. Duane was three years younger than me and he was our paperboy. Before readers were spread thin the Globe hired kids as young as 10 to deliver the newspaper and collect payments. The Globe even offered college scholarships to kids who worked as paperboys for five years.
What I remember most about Duane is that he was not a morning person. As my morning ritual grew to include more and more pages of the newspaper, I needed Duane to deliver the paper earlier and earlier. Our house was on a hill and overlooked a quiet, residential neighborhood, and I would sit in the second-floor hallway watching Duane deliver the papers. Duane would take 10 steps and stop to look at something that had caught his eye on the ground. He would take five more steps, deliver a paper, then linger on the porch of a neighbor’s house while he rummaged around his delivery bag for the next paper to deliver.
“They’re all the same,” I would scream in my head. “Just pick one and move!”
Duane would take another 15 slow steps and stop to look up at a leaf fluttering from a nearby tree, watching the slow decent and not resuming his route until it had hit the ground.
And all the while I sat in our second floor hallway, looking out the window like a sniper, silently cursing Duane and willing him to get to our house to give me at least enough time to skim last night’s box scores before I left for school at 7:20 a.m. But I was also noticing something else: of the 15 or so houses I could see from that second-story window, every single one of them got the Globe. The Boston Herald, the local tabloid, was presumably a guilty pleasure reserved for bars and barbershops. And if businessmen in our neighborhood read the Wall Street Journal, it must have been delivered to the office. But everyone in the neighborhood started the day with the Globe. Reading the paper was just something people did; it didn’t matter if you were the union Democrat school teacher on one side of the street or the moderate Republican salesman on the other. Everybody, or so it seemed to me, took the Globe.
It’s now 31 years later and my paper is usually delivered before I wake up. When I have been up to see it get delivered, a car pulls up in front of the house and an anonymous arm reaches out the window and tosses it onto our front walkway. The process repeats next door, where a woman in her 80’s lives, then the car speeds off to another neighborhood. Of the 10 or so houses I can see from my front porch, two homes take the Globe.
I’m not pining for the pre-Internet age where a paper like the Globe wielded immense power in setting the agenda for what everyone in a region would be discussing on any given day and where all decisions of what was and was not news was made in twice-daily meetings in the paper’s offices on Morrissey Boulevard in Boston. But there is something to be said about the fact that in 1986 most everyone started the day with the same packet of information. Maybe, like me, they were content with the latest strip of Calvin & Hobbes and a recap of last night’s Bruins’ game, but we all at least had the chance to peruse the same set of stories on weightier issues like elections, the economy and taxes. We could build differences of opinion off of the same basic set of facts and, if the issue was personally important enough, we could start looking for other takes in magazines, books and on television.
It’s well documented that the Internet has all but destroyed the traditional news business. But only recently have we begun to discuss how the disruption of the news business has led to the eradication of political discourse as we knew it. The President, after all, tells us that the country’s newspaper of record is “failing” and that its pioneering cable news network is “fake news,” and most of us just shrug or roll our eyes. In theory, the Internet was supposed to give us all of the information we needed to make more-informed and better decisions in every facet of our life. In practice, however, the Internet has worked out efficient channels to give us what we want as opposed to what we need. And what we want rarely results in good political decisions and even worse political discourse.
Dumbing down the media literacy of the average American has been a two-stage process. In stage one, we were able to find more and more nuanced information on the topics we were most interested in, at the expense of spending time with information on topics we were less interested in, or not yet interested in. The only reason I started exploring other sections of the paper is that someone else in our house had gotten to the sports section before me, so I decided to read the Metro section and found accounts of grisly crimes that peaked the lurid interest of 13-year-old me. And phase two has come courtesy of Facebook and Twitter, where more and more people get their news each day. The information I get each day isn’t vetted by the Globe editors and assembled into a packet for Duane B — — — -k to dump on my front step anymore. Today, the news we get is packaged and delivered by the dozens, hundreds or thousands of different people we follow on social media. Again, in theory, that seems like a good thing. After all, we’re no longer beholden to a single institution to present us a view of the world. But in practice, as we shall see, it has been problematic.