Are you incompetent?

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.

  • fred wilson

    i’d restate your last paragraph Jeff to reflect that the people may be doing the writing going forward, not just the media.

  • Steel Magnolia

    “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.”
    A more difficult world? More like no time for an entertainment blizzard, and no need for televised narcotica as folks fell into bed, exhausted, at the end of a very long working day, 7 days a week.

  • billg

    Hear, hear! Doubting the American public’s ability to make informed decisions is a prerequisite for installing a government of “elites” who are supposed to know better. Nice to know where people stand, though.

  • Doesn’t Remnick’s Serious-Journalism magazine have a circulation of, like, one million? Or is the problem that they’re only reading the cartoons?

  • Tom

    Remnick’s comments sound startlingly like those of Howell Raines, who claimed that the Times would be read by those “in the know,” meaning the well educated, etc. He seemed to be making distinctions on a large portion of the American population not being wanted as readers for the Times. So while wanting to be seen as the paper of record, you don’t believe everyone should – or can – read your paper? Get over yourselves, people.

  • The buzz machine is unquestionably correct.
    Mamet said it, “the audience is smarter than you.” I think compelling writing, in any media, manifests via a similar attitude.

  • Perhaps part of the reason that people are turning away from mainstream coverage of world events is that the coverage is so biased.
    I know that I don’t go to the media first when I want to know something important. I go to the blogs.

  • mm

    Oh yes, EvilPundit. Becuase the blogs are so free of bias.

  • sol

    Interesting referenced to ‘reform theology’ (I guess though I can’t take that to mean Reformed Theology… Buzzmachine being a Genevan blog I suppose is too much to ask for…)

  • Just because you trust and respect the people doesn’t mean you shouldn’t slap them around a bit.

  • So, poor us, the news consumers. Faced with a “blizzard of choices,” having to our “own navigators,” we’re just completely lost without guys like Remnick to show us the way.
    This is just more of the arrogance of mainstream journalists. They’re losing their monopoly on the dissemination of information, and — boo-hoo! — people like use aren’t taking them seriously, anymore!
    Btw, the comment about Jefferson’s day is also seriously misguided. We live in more difficult world than Jefferson faced? Please! Does this guy know anything about history? Jefferson was actually the first U.S. President to have to send the Marines to deal with Islamic extremists. Where does Remnick think “to the shores of Tripoli” came from, anyway? (Oh, that’s right, New York liberals aren’t into that military stuff.) And the media competition in Jefferson’s day was intense, not to mention nasty.
    In short, this Remnick is a class-A moron. His comments are just one more nail in the coffin of dinosaur journalism.

  • No, mm.
    Because the blogs usually state their bias. Because the blogs question and check each other. Because the blogs let me add my own comments to the story. Because the blogs don’t have the arrogance of an elite. Because I can, and do, have a blog of my own.
    For all these reasons and more, I go to the blogs first.

  • Err, the Framers (well, many of them) did not believe in the 21st century concept of universal democracy.
    For example, no popular election of Senators, President – and no vote if you weren’t a property-owning white male (again, there’s exceptions, but they sure didn’t trust “The People”, or they meant it in a very qualified way).
    Now, this is not to make light of the innovation against monarchy. BUT … viewing them as if they were in a present historical context is not justified.
    The US is a representative republic – NOT a direct democracy.

  • David Fleck

    Is there a link for this excerpt?

  • Jeff Jarvis: The Great Commoner?

  • Angelos

    As bad as the media can be with arrogance, at least we can ignore them and there are no consequences.
    Aren’t our elected officials worse, though? The sheer arrogance once they take office – overstepping their mandate to grab and spend as much of our money as they can on themselves, when all we really need is a military, a highway system, and education money. All because they know what’s best for us?

  • Rasselas

    The faith in democracy expressed so fervently in the preceding comments contains the seeds of its own destruction.
    To take just the most obvious: Perhaps our elected officials overstep their mandate, to establish a state apparatus in excess of the army, navy and California Highway Patrol because the people — whoever they are — want those things, and, consequently, elect and re-elect the politicans who supply or promise to supply them. And people — perhaps even “the people” — continue to consume the mass media that some condemn as biased, just as others condemn them as distracting.
    If it is the attention of people, or “the people,” that elevates some issues, interpretations and public figures above others, then are we not free to criticize the results of those elections?
    Alternatively, perhaps we are unworthy of the power that we exercise as citizens and mass consumers.

  • hm. very interesting indeed. David Remnick was on the west coast during the exchange that the buzz machine features here. Remnick gave a lecture on tuesday night on the stanford campus (which i attended) and participated in a symposium the next day (which i didnt attend) again on the stanford campus.
    i was wondering when someone was going to bitchslap Remnick. his speech on tuesday night–incredible, eloquent, informed, great. the q & a to follow? he was a complete elitist ass. but, then, that is his job. he must be discriminating and hard in his opinions.
    as for the ideas that Kennedy and Remnick put forth, they are both right. the public is besieged by a barrage of information that they dont always have the time or resources to sift through. sometimes the information is crap masquerading as news and sometimes it is attention-worthy. both parties bear responsibility for the current state of public informed-ness.

  • Wow, I ran across an article (granted, in a rather wierd place) that is just about the antithesis of the arguments re “the people” being too ignorant, uninterested or univolved to effectively move the democratic process.
    All in all I find Mr. Remnick’s attitude, and his apparent historical myopia, dissapointingly unsurprising.

  • MVH

    Let’s raise our glasses to Prof. Kennedy for slapping Mr. Remnick back to reality. The First Amendment guarantees the right to say what you want. It doesn’t guarantee an audience!
    Should Mr. Remnick change his mind? NO. Should he take Thomas Jefferson’s advice and educate the public of his opinion and then step back and let the public make-up its OWN mind? Most definately!!

  • AST

    View from a Height has an amazingly arrogant remark from the exec editor of the WaPo, defending the press’s “lynch mob” attitude about the Abu Ghraib scandal, this exchange from an online chat on the WaPo website between a reader and Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the paper:
    Arlington, Va.: Looks like trial by media to me. I don’t intend to make light of what happened in Iraq, but don’t you think that The Post is just feeding a lynch mob? It would be better to wait for a court to establish what happened, and go from there.
    Leonard Downie Jr.: It is our First Amendment responsibility to inform the public as fully as possible regardless of what happens in courts or, in this case, inside the military justice system. To cite just one example, that is what we did with Watergate.