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Smarten Up



Last week, half the nation elected a man who doesn't read over the smartest candidate who has ever run for office.

That it shocked me shocks me. Why the hell didn't I see it coming? As four of our last six presidents, we elected a peanut farmer, a B-movie actor, a guy who had his El Camino in storage during his presidency and a guy in a cowboy hat who spent his vacations whacking brush in Waco. It isn't that Carter or Reagan or Clinton or George W. Bush weren't smart. But they did a good job of hiding it. George H.W. Bush and Obama were flukes; both ran against equally smart guys. I don't think Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would have won. They are too obviously smart.

I read too much. I tend to mispronounce words — a sure sign, my husband says, that I was one of those nerdy kids in high school with no friends (he exaggerates, I swear!). But I understand the unpopularity of the smart kid. In my working class high school, smart kids were segregated and scorned.

The Journal asked me to write this column early to discuss the role of the media in the election. I'm getting to it.

I bristle at the term "the media." As a journalist, I'm part of the press. If the press is part of the media, it is a small, and the least influential, part. While the press I'm familiar with — newspapers and broadcast television and online news sites — told a particular story during this election, lots of people never saw that or flat out rejected it.

Here is the difference. The press is made up of people like me. The bigger media is made up of a different crowd. They make me think of a guy I went to high school with — he was quarterback. He was also in all my AP classes. If you weren't in class with him, you'd think he was just another dopey football player. He fit in and was the most popular guy in school.

This bigger media reaches people through talk radio and talk television and television dramas. They might be well read, too, but they know their audience isn't.

There was some excellent journalism published and broadcast during this election cycle. Because of the reporting from the Washington Post, New York Times and the Guardian, and because of top-notch coverage by television news teams and the political team at National Public Radio, those of us who consumed press coverage were well informed. But just as the press is a small part of the media, those who consume journalism are a small part of media consumers.

Here's the real problem: Over the course of I don't know how long, a giant portion of one part of the media has set out to discredit the small part that is the press. On talk radio and Fox News, you had charismatic people scoffing at the New York Times and the Washington Post and the TV news teams the way the smart kids were scoffed at in my school.

When I first started teaching mass media theory a decade ago, I began to worry that smart neoconservatives reading media theory would figure out how to con the American people. That's what has happened. There is a landmark study we teach in mass media done during World War II by a sociologist named Paul Lazarsfeld. He surveyed people during a presidential election and found they weren't influenced by what they read but by people they admired. He called these folks opinion leaders.

Where journalists had influence, Lazarsfeld found, was in influencing these opinion leaders. The extreme right figured out a magic formula: You win over the opinion leaders and discredit the press.

We now have a president who won't be influenced by press at all because he doesn't read. What influences this opinion leader? Who knows?

Journalism allowed this to happen by abandoning those who lack a college education. I teach three basic rules in my journalism classes: honesty, clarity and accuracy. I shouldn't have to explain the first. But some people find the prominence of the second surprising. Shouldn't accuracy be second? No. Because there is no point in reporting — and writing and publishing and broadcasting — if your audience doesn't understand what you say. Clarity is crucial.

Read some news stories. Watch some television news. Listen to NPR. They are all scripted by college-educated people for those with college educations. There are times I can't even understand the New York Times and I'm from the smarty pants class.

Many students balk at my lesson on clarity. They say I want them to dumb things down. But that implies that people without big vocabularies are stupid. They aren't. They are simply less educated. It's a totally different thing. I know complete idiots who hold doctorates.

I stopped assigning text books in my classes because I found most of them almost impossible to read, written by people who seem desperate to impress the reader with fancy words and long sentences. Students aren't going to read that! Did I really read that stuff in college? How many naps did I take in the library, trying to work my way through dense pages?

Most concepts are not that complicated. Most political ideas are pretty simple. The need to stop climate change is a no-brainer. So is the idea that if you work 40 hours, you should be able to feed your family. Or that two people who work the same job should get the same pay. Why do we complicate stuff? Barack Obama won election on two one-syllable words: hope and change.

If the left wants to take back Congress in two years and the presidency in four, it has to start reaching people who don't read and it has to stop treating them like they're stupid. The press has to fight back against the war on its credibility. But to do that, it has to stop making news and information such a slog.

We need to engage our audiences, not drive them away. We need to wake people up, not put them to sleep.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.

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