Do We Need to Keep on Dumbing Down The News?

Before there was a fabulous netherworld in journalism-before the Internet-certain conventions congealed into dictums:

-Never send the reader scurrying to the dictionary or encyclopedia.

-Never assume the reader knows anything. -Write stories as if they had no histories, as if each story is a primer.

-Explain terms of art or avoid them.

-When a story gets too complicated, too layered, write a backgrounder or an analysis.

-Don’t use words beyond an eighth-grade level.

-Don’t assume the reader has any knowledge of the subject or that the reader will happily look something up.

There are more conventions, but you get the idea. They were formulated when journalism took place on a flat piece of paper. They were changed a bit in the 1950s to accommodate sound and imagery, but those changes, never completely successful, are nothing compared to the changes the Internet is making under our noses.

It has been axiomatic that journalism can’t employ footnotes, end notes, indexes and bibliographies. But with the advent of hypertext, journalism has acquired another dimension, a previously unimaginable depth. You can click on a word and gain passage to an incredible netherworld of journalism. I use the word netherworld because it refers to things below the surface. A more accurate description of what the Internet brings to journalism would be to say that it opens the worlds in back of the obvious, overt world in front of us. It validates the formerly boosterish phrase news in depth.

A single story, the kind the Associated Press moves every day, if properly salted with links is now a passport to a country that borders on scholarship. You could spend a day probing the depths of a well-linked story, and the next day, too. You could enter the world of footnotes, end notes, bibliographies and references. And you will find imagery as well as type.

But the old conventions, starting perhaps with the newspaperman, poet and fiction writer Stephen Crane, author of the famously terse The Red Badge of Courage, have meanwhile spread out into the culture to impinge on the way we view most writing, journalistic or not. To some extent our efforts, ill-advised or not, to make higher education easier for some students have been accommodated by this journalistic convention. Why, we ask in some quarters, should a student have to look something up? Why should a textbook not be a beach read, a page turner-dumbed down for unchallenging access while sipping a drink and ogling girls, a flat pasttime? The Internet, on the hand, is a university of the clouds.

I’ve never understood this notion of dumbing down, because it begs the obvious and yet unanswerable question, Dumb down how much? I’ve always welcomed the opportunity to look something up, the challenge of figuring out where to look something up. And I’ve always delighted in what I’ve found, sometimes because it invites me to challenge the assumptions that sent me searching in the first place. The great danger in dumbing down news or anything else is that it plays inevitably into the hands of the received idea, and the received idea is the enemy of civilization.

Is that the nature of scholarship, which therefore should be left to scholars? Or is that part of scholarship that makes the life of the mind exciting, whether we become credentialed scholars or not? I suspect our societal obsession with credentialism has much to do with this artificial distinction imposed by journalistic convention. Many of us are by nature scholars, but our society encourages us to believe that scholars are an authorized class.

So the rest of us, if we pursue our obsession, are labeled autodidacts, outsiders. Outside of what? The academy? The world of credentialism? Or the world of received, authorized knowledge? Anything that becomes conventional wisdom or dogma is questionable because only historians know how it happened and most of us don’t know what they know and never will if we keep on dumbing down.

Under these circumstances, I would rather be a rogue. Like Gustave Flaubert, I don’t believe received ideas are much good to us until we re-examine them, and I don’t believe any body of knowledge should be authorized, accredited.

That is why I am excited by the Internet. It challenges all these conventions [].

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage in a kind of quick, stripped down Anglo-Saxon English reminiscent of Beowulf. I think he would have been pleased that the equally terse war hero Audie Murphy [] was cast as the protagonist in the John Huston movie. The story became a kind of prototype for later fiction, most dramatically Ernest Hemingway’s and Raymond Carver’s. And there are lesser traces of it in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work.

I ran up against this issue earlier this week when a much respected colleague who had been reading the manuscript of Brushstrokes and Glances, a book of my poems to be published early next year by Deerbrook Editions, thought perhaps that certain references required notes. Each poem is about a painter, painting or something observed in a museum. I conferred with an equally respected poet who thought not.

The incident sent me scurrying back in memory to my encounters with poets who had invited me to consult references: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and many others, in English and French. Many of them, although perhaps not Pound, could be read enjoyably without accepting the invitation. But even as a boy I thought it churlish not to seize the opportunity. I simply wanted to know what they knew. Nor did I resent them for importuning me.

So who feels importuned in our society by this challenge? Students who have been coddled? I’m not so sure. I think they have been betrayed, not coddled. The joys of corn syrup and limitless gasoline have been instilled in them, but somehow the joys of pondering all that humanity has bestowed upon them have eluded them. Whose fault is that?

That is not the defect that Stephen Crane or Carver or Hemingway meant to redress. They meant to vivify and quicken a language that seemed to them languishing, not make it palatable to a booboisie. They did not mean to turn the menu into doughnuts and hot dogs. So how did this perfectly justifiable journalistic convention become a rationale for disdaining the pleasures of research? How did the impulse of great writers to purify and refine the language become a dullard’s ABC?

That said, I wouldn’t want to make a case for writers whose referential habits are exhibitionistic in nature. They’re crass showoffs and on that score alone should be avoided, because showing off is at heart mean-spirited.

I don’t know how hypertext will affect poetry. Many poets are experimenting with tools found in cyberspace. But that cyberspace will change poetry, is changing it, I have no doubt. And I’m happy for it, because I see no reason that Johannes Gutenberg should forever be the arbiter of poetry any more than Aristotle should forever be the arbiter of science and philosophy.