Recently in this space, I lamented the loathsome state of the newspaper industry and noted Thomas Jefferson's low estimation of it. Since then, I have discovered other statements by this great man on the subject. In a letter to Dr. Walter Jones, written from Monticello, on January 2, 1814, the third president stated in point-blank fashion, "I deplore, with you, the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them . . ." Again, in a missive penned on January 12, 1819, to Nathaniel Macon, an ardent states' rights advocate in North Carolina, Jefferson admitted that he subscribed to only one newspaper and read "chiefly the advertisements, for they contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper." Isn't it amazing that pronouncements made by this renaissance man almost 200 years ago are as fresh and vibrant today as when they were written?

Newspapers are not the only putrefied media. A number of citizens, as polls indicate, prefer Fox News over all other. But have you noticed what features are "most read" on One would think he was reading the National Enquirer. Trite stories concerning personalities such as Matthew McConaughey, Hillary Duff, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Kate Moss, and Amy Winehouse are everyday fare.

Even the immensely popular "Factor with Bill O'Reilly" aired a number of pieces on the death of Anna Nicole Smith. That kind of story, as Mr. O'Reilly recognizes, is not only unworthy of prime time, but also of any time whatsoever! The reason why the trash is featured has to do with ratings and money. Be not deceived: there is generally in the world of media an underlying contempt for the wellbeing of American culture. If you don't believe that, just take a look at what these "journalists" regard as newsworthy!

It is vital in any republican system of government that the people are informed. Since power is ultimately derived from them, it is necessary that they be enlightened. One late-night comedian's television show features a segment in which he encounters people on the street and asks them the simplest questions about historical and contemporary persons and events. An individual, for example, who identifies herself as a middle school civics teacher, is shown a photograph of Vice President Dick Cheney and, then, asked to identify it. She pauses, laughs nervously, and then stupefyingly answers, "Nikita Khrushchev?" The idea that citizens can be this obtuse and ill-informed consistently evokes waves of laughter.  Maybe for their sake we should all take a moment and say "Ha ha!" together.

I have no idea whether this state of abysmal ignorance is staged or real. Nor do I know how many passersby correctly identify such photographs without further attention. What I do know is that, when an adult American citizen, especially a school teacher, cannot identify a recent photograph of the current Vice President of the United States, it should be profoundly troubling to us all. Even the sorry and corrupt media cannot be held entirely responsible for this state of affairs!

The question, really, is how the average citizen becomes informed. Certainly not by reading newspapers or by watching television. They are journalistic jokes, and bad ones at that. So is it possible to become informed inside the walls of a university, where political correctness abounds and where people, believe it or not, still take Karl Marx seriously, as someone other than a relic of history? Give me a break!  Can a citizen become informed by reading "the great books"? Well, in many ways yes, but in other ways no. There is no elaboration of current events per se in the great books; furthermore, how many citizens have that kind of time? Can one become informed by surfing the net?  Maybe, if he is sufficiently fortunate to locate a few reputable sites.

These questions and concerns are tough ones, but permit me to throw out some ideas. It may be that it is time to revise laws respecting journalism. If a story is libelous regarding a "public figure," dispense with the requirement of "actual malice," provide for hefty punitive damages, and have a policy in place that encourages public denunciation of the reporter and the specific media concern he represents. Powerful citizen lobbies might likewise begin to place constructive pressure upon media moguls, as well as those under their authority who report on the personal lives of Hollywood actors. Internet pornography might also be roundly prohibited. To view clowns like Springer, Stern, and Povich as practicing "free speech" ridicules the founders and the First Amendment! Finally, I see nothing morally or socially perverse about regarding those who corrupt American culture as social pariahs, to be regarded with less esteem than that with which one would greet a pimp or a drug dealer. I have come to the realization, in fact, that there is little difference.

June 25, 2008