Are you incompetent?
: David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker, slaps the public for not reading the news he thinks they should read and a Stanford prof slaps him — deservedly — in return.
Mr. Remnick’s critique of the American press for turning from expensive foreign news to “non-fiction show business” featuring celebrity trials elicited agreement. But when he blamed the public for failing to pay adequate attention to serious journalism, Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy demurred with a little help from the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Prof. Kennedy, who like Mr. Remnick has won a Pulitzer Prize, likened the editor’s indictment of the public the night before to Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” address. He paraphrased the former president: “I’m a good leader, but you’re not cooperating by being good, attentive citizens.”
“It’s absolutely fatal to democratic theory to believe the public is incompetent,” said Mr. Kennedy. “To whom else can we turn?”
Mr. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history, quoted an 1820 letter of Thomas Jefferson: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.” News media, Mr. Kennedy said, must be more “clever” at making what’s important compelling.
Editor Remnick responded: “I don’t think at all people are incompetent. They are faced with a more difficult world than Thomas Jefferson faced.” In Jefferson’s time, he said, there was no “entertainment blizzard … the narcotic effect of television at the end of a day.
“I feel sorry in a way for the news consumer,” Mr. Remnick continued. “They are faced with a blizzard of choices and they are their own navigators.”
Sign me up for Prof. Kennedy’s speech. He’s absolutely right. If you do not trust and respect the people, then you don’t — you can’t — believe in democracy… or capitalism… or education… or art… or reform theology… And if the people don’t read what we write, then maybe we should find a new way to write it. We are our own navigators — all the more so in this age of remote controls and mice — and it’s a great thing. It’s about time.