Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Read, you idiot, read

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people". 

Although this quote has long been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, there is no proof that he either said it or wrote it. However, it IS an accurate paraphrase of his views on education. As a result, freedom of the press is included in the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States. His attitude also inspired him to found the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1819. 

Although our fellow citizens are now the best educated in our country's history (34.6% have a college degree), too many of us simply do not read enough.

As more and more of our fellow citizens get their news from electronic sources, circulation of traditional print newspapers continue to decline, and the New York Times exemplifies the trend. As of January of 2017, the Times had added 308,000 new digital subscriptions (largely due to Trump), but print ad revenue (which is more lucrative than digital ad revenue) had declined by 18% in the first quarter of 2017.

One of the many victims of this trend is the Denver Post, which is now owned by Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund. Alden Capital’s subsidiary, Digital First Media, actually runs the paper.

Last weekend, the editorial board of the 125 year old newspaper blasted its owners, a bold move that was supported by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock. Due to the dramatic staff cuts forced by its owners, the Denver Post is essentially looking for a new owner. That is precisely what happened to the L.A. Times, which had been owned by Tronc. It is now owned by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire medical entrepreneur, who had been a major shareholder in Tronc.

Digital First Media is among the biggest newspaper chains in the country, with more than 90 newspapers including The Pioneer Press of St. Paul, Minn.; The Mercury News of San Jose, Calif.; The Orange County Register; and The Boston Herald. The company has aggressively cut resources in its quest for profit, with recent staff reductions at several of its papers, including The Mercury News and The Herald.

Alden’s strategy follows a pattern: It typically buys newspapers at a bargain — it purchased The Herald for roughly $12 million — before cutting costs. If you saw the movie, “The Post”, you may remember that Catherine Graham bravely decided to publish the Pentagon papers at roughly the same time as the company decided to go public. Her gamble worked, and the newspaper survived.

Although the company continues to be profitable, chief executive Donald E. Graham recently decided to sell the family newspaper in order to better survive in today’s environment, and he quickly found a buyer – Jeff Bezos, who personally paid $250 million in cash for the newspaper.

Since its founding, the Washington Post has earned 47 Pulitzer Prizes, second only to the New York Times, which has earned 122. In order to continue to produce the quality journalism that led to those awards, newspapers need an adequate number of journalists on staff, which companies like Alden Global Capital simply do not understand.

Although immigrant bashing seems to be becoming more popular again, it is worth noting that Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest man) was actually raised by a Cuban immigrant named Miguel Bezos, who married his mother 5 years after she gave birth as a 17 year old high school student.

Another immigrant who has had a profound affect on our society is a Scottish immigrant named Andrew Carnegie, who used his vast fortune to fund a total of 2509 Carnegie libraries between 1883 and 1929.

Carnegie’s philosophy of life can be summed up by “the Andrew Carnegie Dictum”:

·         To spend the first third of one's life getting all the education one can.
·         To spend the next third making all the money one can.
·         To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.

Carnegie was a strong believer in philanthropy, even at an early age. By the time of his death in 1919, he had already given away $350 million ($77 billion in 2015 dollars). After his death, his remaining $30 million was given to foundations, charities, and pensioners. His belief in getting an education not only applied to himself, but to others as well, which is why he started paying for libraries  in 1883.

Carnegie believed in giving to the "industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others." Under segregation black people were generally denied access to public libraries in the Southern United States. Rather than insisting on his libraries being racially integrated, Carnegie funded separate libraries for African Americans. For example, in Houston he funded a separate Colored Carnegie Library. The Carnegie Library in Savannah, Georgia, opened in 1914 to serve black residents, who had been excluded from the public library. The privately organized Colored Library Association of Savannah had raised money and collected books to establish a small Library for Colored Citizens. Having demonstrated their willingness to support a library, the group then petitioned for and received funds from Carnegie. Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his memoirs that he frequently used it as a boy, before the library system was desegregated.

Carnegie’s generosity allowed a large number of people to read more books than they could afford to buy on their own. Among all Americans, the average number of books read (or listened to) last year was 12. My wife read 113, which is WAY above the national average. At last count, the two of us owned over 500 books, a far better use of $10,000 than a large screen TV would have been. Samsung’s QN88Q9F has an 88” screen that you can buy for $20,000, but the MOST EXPENSIVE television currently available is priced at $2.25 million.

Women read more than men, and folks with higher education and income read more that folks with less education an income, but the ubiquity of public libraries in this country means that ANYONE with a desire to learn can become well informed if they set their mind to it.

In today’s society, all sorts of reliable news sources (network television, CNN, old line newspapers, and public radio) are being called “fake news”, while highly suspect sources like FOX “news”, Breitbart, Infowars, WorldNetDaily, and The Daily Caller are trusted by lots of people who should know better.

I recently monitored a classroom where a “media literacy course” was being taught. Its purpose was to help students distinguish between “fake” and “real” news – and reading lots of books and newspapers can help them do that. Many historians consider JFK to be one of the 10 best presidents in our history. He could read approximately 2500 words a minute (10 times faster than average), which allowed him to read LOTS of books, and six newspapers every morning.

Donald Trump does not read, and was recently voted the WORST president in our country’s history by the 2018 Presidents and Executives Politics Presidential Greatness Survey.

 As a society, we still watch a lot of TV, but slightly less than we used to. Older Americans watch the most (an average of 50 hours per week), but the balance of our society averages about 35.

I have to admit that I average less than that (at most, about 35 hours a YEAR), but I also spend a lot of time reading. In that regard, my philosophy is similar to the ideas of Andrew Carnegie. If you want to continue learning as you grow older, there is only way solution:

“read, you idiot, read”

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