After airing a five-minute segment on the recent controversy surrounding racy photos of a teenage Disney star, longtime Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden left the viewing audience with these words to ponder: "Just another distraction to keep our minds away from the things that really matter." With grim resignation, McFadden did her best to project the image of a grizzled industry vet, powerless to stem the tide of increasingly trivial programming at a time when serious journalism is paramount. She was Cronkite or Murrow, staring not into the camera, but into the future – and quietly lamenting what it held. It was stoic defeat, a helpless shrug. And in that one, brief spectacle, McFadden managed to encapsulate the plight of American culture today. We recognize the debasement of standards, we see the signs of intellectual decay. Yet we do nothing. And our inaction is our complicity. Each time we shrug helplessly in the face of diminished expectation, we are greasing the slope of an already rapid collective decline.
Every night, exhausted and devoid of will, I submit to the one activity that allows me to unwind without feeling like a complete philistine. I watch cable news. I lie on the couch, mind blank, and listen to biased, imperious opinion presented with the authority of fact. Neatly contained within seconds-long segments, enormously complex subjects are reduced to little more than sound bites. Small, simple and easy to swallow. Information so highly processed – by the anchor, the analyst, the network, the conglomerate – that by the time it gets to me, it requires no digestion, no analysis. Suddenly, in writing or conversation, I find myself coughing up facts I can't substantiate and imperatives born of alien beliefs. But still, night after night, I return to the couch and ask for more. And after every binge, I purge – regurgitating unsound information back into the system of collective thought. Into an already malnourished body politic.
That's the problem with infotainment media, says Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason. It has created a culture of passive, uninformed Americans accustomed to being spoon-fed their information. At its most innocuous, infotainment is grossly over-simplified, occasionally inaccurate and often irrelevant "news" passed along to a less than vigilant public. At its most insidious, infotainment is the carrier of disinformation – partisan agenda masquerading as fact. It's Weapons of Mass Destruction, the War on Terror. It's the vague and ill-defined threat to our Democratic ideals.
But we know all of this. We know the story is bullshit, we know the network is owned. We know that every second of soft-interest celebrity update peddled to us with the manic urgency of breaking news is a fallen soldier unrecognized, a humanitarian crisis ignored. We know that We Were Lied To. But still, we come back for more.
Jacoby's argument – explicated in the book with frightening historical support – contends that since the time of our nation's inception, we have become steadily more divorced from the process of reason. Citing factors such as the rise of religious fundamentalism, the decline of educational standards and our growing technological dependence, Jacoby argues that, as a nation, we have become not only dumb, but increasingly incapable of rational thought. Six out of ten adults can't find Iraq on a map, but we fail to see how that's a problem. Fewer Americans are learning foreign languages because more and more of us don't believe that it's necessary. Our collective standards for knowledge have become frighteningly low. Our expectations of each other and ourselves, increasingly slight. And with each generation born into the ever-darkening age of unreason, we move further from the enlightened ideals out of which this country was born.
But Jacoby's arguments, no matter how fresh, how sound, how meticulously researched, are all-too easy to forget. That failure isn't hers, it's ours. Jacoby offers perspective – a map charting the paths that have brought us here. It's a tool designed to help us understand the past. But history offers nothing if we're unable to understand ourselves in relation to it. Every shrug, every mindless utterance of baseless fact – every time we roll our eyes at the depraved state of media but continue to watch – we contribute. We look around and see the problem. We sadly shake our heads. And then we go about our lives. We are the reasons behind unreason.
Sarah Nardi grew up in the Midwest and attended college at the University of Arizona and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She always knew that she wanted to be a writer but somehow felt that she should try every other conceivable occupation first. Sarah presently lives in Chicago where she spends her days exercising, thinking and talking back to talk radio.