In a documentary that aired last month on MTV called "The Best Place to Start," actress Drew Barrymore rode the campaign trail to try to figure out why her fellow twentysomethings don't vote. When the starlet cornered politicos such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and James Carville, they invariably answered her bumbling questions with talk of a "vicious circle" -- politicians don't address youth's concerns because youth doesn't vote, and vice versa. How did the vicious circle start? Where would it end? Nobody seemed to know, and Barrymore, who by this time had also figured out just how ignorant she was about the real issues in the election, ended up sniffling in her hotel room as she wondered -- on-camera -- whether she'd taken on too big a job.
A Charlie's Angel playing civics teacher is easy to mock. But in his new book Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, which has already drawn an admiring blurb from Walter Cronkite, St. Michael's College journalism professor David T.Z. Mindich shows us that Barrymore's allergic reaction to politics is actually surprisingly typical. The emotions fueling her crying jag -- confusion, mistrust of her elders, guilt about her own ignorance -- showed up repeatedly as Mindich interviewed people between ages 11 and 36 around the country, quizzing them about their news-tracking habits and their knowledge of current events.
The results were sobering. Forty of 58 interview subjects could not name the attorney general of the United States; only seven were able to identify all three nations designated by President Bush as part of the "axis of evil." Less than half could name both of their state's U.S. senators.
Mindich's sample is small, to be sure, but his anecdotal findings about young people's civic ignorance are backed up by statistics. In 1972, he tells us, 47 percent of 23- to 27-year-olds read a newspaper every day; in 2002, 19 percent did. Nightly TV newscasts lure only 17 percent of the under-30 crowd; the average CNN viewer is over 60. And while most kids are plugged into the Internet, a 2002 Roper Poll showed that only 11 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds seek news online. It seems that my friends who consider "The Daily Show" their nightly newscast aren't alone -- nearly half of those under 30 report they get their current-events fix from late-night comedy shows.
Why are young people abandoning traditional news, and what can we do about it? Mindich never questions the premise that this waning of interest is bad -- "a huge danger to democracy itself," he calls it. But for a book about what's wrong with "kids today," Tuned Out is fairly unpreachy. Rather than evoking the collapse of Western civilization, Mindich simply asks a bunch of young people why they do or don't "tune in." He concludes that those who do tune in "follow the news because they are part of a community" where news is discussed and valued. Tuned-out young people, by contrast, tend to be more isolated from their local communities. While these tuned-outs are just as media-savvy as their newshound counterparts, they're primarily interested in entertainment.
The eclipse of news by entertainment is one of the leitmotifs of Tuned Out. Mindich's global explanation for news-illiteracy might be paraphrased, "It's the sitcoms, stupid." In one memorable passage, he notes that the 2003 finale of "American Idol" provoked more passion among young Americans than did the 2000 presidential race.
If kids can memorize 10 singing contestants and their hometowns, Mindich reasons, what's stopping them from knowing who's who in the presidential primaries? It isn't a question of ability, but of will and focus. Pointing out how the current media landscape has shifted overwhelmingly toward instant gratification, Mindich argues that adults bear some responsibility for refocusing young people's priorities. He recommends requiring a civics class for college entrance, for example, or adding basic civics questions to the SAT.
Constructive as these suggestions may be, they won't do much to win over those young people who cite journalism itself as the reason they don't follow the news. And it's not just young people: A 2004 First Amendment Center/ American Journalism Review poll found that only 39 percent of Americans agree that "the news media try to report the news without bias."
Mindich encountered this cynicism about media bias repeatedly in his interviews, but he doesn't buy it. The book includes an in-depth discussion of how commercial concerns have distorted the journalistic mission, as well as several concrete suggestions for taking back "the airwaves, desktops and news offices" from large corporate interests. Still, Mindich maintains that good journalism "is still practiced every day in the United States and around the world" and that we have no excuse for not seeking it out.
Ultimately, Tuned Out is a call for a return to traditional civic engagement and a revivification of the old, locally based party structures and news outlets, which brought the issues to people's front doors. Young people who believe the future is elsewhere -- for instance, in Internet political communities -- may not agree with some of Mindich's conclusions.
Still, Mindich pulls off a balancing act in this book: He manages not to bash young people for their ignorance while still refusing to let them off the hook. And that, perhaps, is the real "best place to start."