So Much Content, So Little Information
My middle school daughter has announced that her new favorite president is Calvin Coolidge. I do not believe it is due to his business-first approach to the Roaring Twenties. My daughter, herself a girl of few words, admires "Silent Cal" for his terseness. Would that this quality were shared by more people, in more arenas.
Instead, ubiquity and volume appear to be the chief attributes of words these days.
The dictates of our respective markets call on us to be prolific, even beyond our abilities. "Content!" screams the machine, with little regard for its fodder's taste or nutritional value. Book writers must create and re-create their sequels, at ever-increasing length. Nonfiction publishing houses feel the urge to flood the market in response to major events -- within four to six months. Politicians must debate into the double digits, not because more debates are better, but because each niche, be it geographic, demographic, or ideological, demands its own morsel.
In consumer- or popular-culture, this is merely burdensome, as I choose between TMZ or PopSugar. But in public life it matters.
While many attitudes toward politics have shifted in various ways over the last decades, at least one thing has remained constant. Citizens feel less and less able to find relevant information. They report that they "can't find out" what various candidates think about issues that matter to them. But how can this be? They're talking so much, after all, what about all those debates?
The problem is that increasingly much of what is said is, civically speaking, junk food -- devoid of nutrition. As the content-machine requires more and more, the ratio of junk to nutrition increases. It becomes harder and harder for people to find out what they need and want to know. Yes, it's out there. Just buried, or hidden in plain sight.
No great revelation: It's a cycle that feeds on itself. More outlets need more material with which to fill their maws.
Creating "content" has become a job in its own right. This is in itself a capitulation. We need to reclaim lost ground, at least when it comes to the public square. Writers must see themselves as contributing to important discourse, not creating a product that may later get "re-purposed." Politicians and pundits must have something to say, not simply a need to speak. The organizations that serve all this "content" up to eager viewers, listeners, and users must return to the now-quaint view of themselves as leaders with a duty to enrich the public square and not starve its soil.
It's exactly who we have deposed whom we can most use long about now: editors.
A friend of mine, an editor at a newspaper, once told me that the role of an editor is to find out what the reader ought to know, and get them to want to know it.
This, of course, seems anathema to the radically democratized world of information in which we now live. I can imagine the comments now, accusing me of being in league with MSM. Indeed, I myself am, as a "blogger," the beneficiary of today's lowered barrier of entry into the "public voice" market. So I say this knowing I am pointing a finger at myself.
Yet it is this old-fashioned approach that we need in order to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. So many new and useful voices have entered the public square (many on this site), at the same time as so much static. The lost role of editor can help me find quality, and help bring meaning back into public life.
In fact, the role of editor is needed not just in the news business, but throughout public life. We need people with backbone who will say no, put on the brakes, shoot down dumb ideas, and generally be grown-ups.
Looking around, there are so few grown-ups on the scene.
One of the Silent Cal anecdotes that had my daughter laughing out loud involves a dinner party. It is said that a young woman (in some telling it is Dorothy Parker) found herself seated next to Coolidge. "I bet my husband," she reportedly said, "that I can get you to say more than two words." To which came the reply: "You lose."
President Calvin Coolidge is also said to be the last president to write his own speeches. He regarded them as his chief works of art, laboring over each word, cutting, molding. Presidents now have speechwriters - in fact, office holders down to mayor now have them. Candidates now answer to a dozen and more "chief strategists," all of whom have a bright idea for what ought to be said and how. It all adds up to more, more, more, backed by less, less, less.
To America, this glut of language says: "You lose."
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces an occasional videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.
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