What We Want to Hear

Voon’s Voice

This is my fourth year at Groton, and while occasionally I see someone read a Sports Illustrated or the latest John Grisham book, I can still count the number of times I have witnessed someone reading a newspaper or a non-fiction book for pleasure.”
As I am writing this article, America faces many pressing issues. Around the world, civil war rages on in Syria; Egypt suffers destabilizing riots, and Iran’s new leaders make tentative first moves towards opening up diplomatic talks with America. But a quick survey of popular news media shows us what’s really on people’s minds. Msn.com’s first story is “School Cancels Halloween;” Yahoo.com leads with: “How Domino’s Pizza really makes its money.” Our political system ground to a literal standstill after four years of fighting over the President’s health care law. Last Wednesday, the comedian Jimmy Kimmel tested public sentiment about this divisive issue—he interviewed numerous people to get their views on Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act. Many interviewees stated emphatically their strong preference for one over the other. Of course, the punch line is—the two phrases refer to the same piece of legislation. We don’t know much, and we make strong judgments on the little information we do have. Perhaps nothing better captures America’s ignorance than the study conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum. Their study concluded that “22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.”

Sadly, this state of ignorance also pervades our campus. Our school rightly prides itself on having an eager student body and an illustrious list of alumni who have served the country: Dean Acheson, C. Douglas Dillon and of course, Franklin  D. Roosevelt. Yet my generation of students—myself included—knows next to nothing about current affairs. A quick perusal of the New York Times reveals many story lines that would only draw a blank stare from me. Okay, the average Groton student may be forgiven for not following the current dispute over territories in the South China Sea or Italy’s ongoing attempt to secure the next coalition government. But try this: talk to the person next to you and ask him or her to name the current President of China, the leader of America’s supposed greatest rival in the next century. I am certain very few high school students in China would fail to name Obama as the president of the United States. But odds are, the majority of us at Groton will not recognize the name of Xi Jin Ping.

But at least Americans outside of Groton follow the news right? Well, 55% of those who do watch news cite television as their main source. Unfortunately, watching “CNN Headline News” and “Fox News” for about five minutes will show you exactly what constitutes as news. I did this. I became better informed about a dog that pushed a child away from oncoming traffic in Atlanta and about a red panda that escaped a zoo in Washington. These are stories that merit the attention of national news outlets? I spent the summer of 2011 in California, at the time of Casey Anthony’s murder trial. Every news channel provided wall-to-wall coverage, complete with guest experts, panelists and other talking heads. Of course, friends and family of Casey Anthony interviewed and cried their hearts out. By constantly covering the trial for several months, CNN Headline News’ viewership rose by more than 150% during this time frame.

Ironically, the more “serious” the news item becomes, the less seriously the media covers the topic. It’s good to know 78% of Americans claim to follow national politics at least “somewhat closely”—until you realize what passes for political news coverage. Last week, Fox News reported that President Obama was keeping a Muslim museum open—despite a government shutdown—with personal donations. Except this fact was a spoof published by a known satirical website. As Glenn Beck memorably put it in an interview with Forbes in 2010, “I could give a flying crap about the political process…we’re an entertainment company.” And it sure is entertaining. Debating whether Obama was born in Africa or Romney is a polygamist sounds funny and harmless—until you realize that a lot of Americans believe the premises. Then it just becomes scary.

Americans only care about news that arouses their empathy. Syria’s civil war has cost tens of thousands of lives, but it is simply too foreign for Americans to comprehend. Yes, the war affects America—but does it affect Americans? After all, no one wants to spend the time to understand the complex differences between the two warring sides. Understanding their ideologies and figuring out which side is better for America is just too darn confusing. But Miley Cyrus’s recent VMA performance is much easier to digest. Miley—unlike Bashar al-Assad—is just so much easier to pronounce. We have all seen Miley in Hannah Montana; the plot is simple and easy to follow. This is much easier to comprehend than the complex set of motives behind the anti-government factions seeking to overthrow Assad. Yes, thousands of people are dying in Syria, but can we really understand what they are going through? No. But Miley’s desire to rebel against her father—that’s something we can all understand and appreciate.

We hear about the “Groton bubble” a lot. We are so insulated from the mundane, everyday problems of the world that going back to your hometown for any extended period of time is truly a culture shock. We eat at weird hours, we miss our dorm mates, and we are embarrassed when we forget that we have to help clean the dishes again. But the Groton bubble also shields us from important realities—like the news. A finding published by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 23% of Americans regularly read a print newspaper. That figure doesn’t sound like a lot, but if we were to poll the percentage of Groton students who read any publication on a regular basis—be it a newspaper, journal or magazine—I bet the number would be closer to five. This is my fourth year at Groton, and while occasionally I see someone read a Sports Illustrated or the latest John Grisham book, I can still count the number of times I have witnessed someone reading a newspaper or a non-fiction book for pleasure. Our English teachers bemoan the fact that Groton kids spend so little time reading. Yes, our preference for Call of Duty 2 over Hemingway and Tolstoy is disheartening. But our indifference to current events is disgraceful—and dangerous.

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