A couple of days ago, I gave a speech to a banquet room full of Teenage Republicans at their annual Washington, D.C. convention. This was a light of hope in an approaching darkness. Coming from across the country, they were energetic, full of good cheer and remarkably well informed on the issues of the day. I was grilled in the Q&A's with questions as deeply informed, sharp and penetrating as any I get when doing television political shows.
And they had an attribute one doesn't encounter every day in Washington: They actually cared and had seriously studied the substance of the policies and events. With such interests and dedication, somehow I don't think many of these kids are going to become Washington journalists, who would be more likely to ask whether an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would benefit the second-tier candidates' fundraising given the front-loaded nature of the primaries.
Being young political activists, these Teenage Republicans also had an interest in the political process, but their first and deepest line of inquiry was substantive questions about China's economic growth and political instabilities, international currency trends (my answer on that one was rather weak), Iran's hegemonic objectives, and rising Muslim radicalism in Europe, among many other topics.
As an older activist conservative Republican, I was encouraged at the young crop to whom we will be passing the baton (although I plan to keep waddling for many more laps, providence providing, before I make my handoff.)
But then I got home, and made the mistake of reading an article in the New York Times on the news habits of teenagers and young adults as studied by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
As you might guess the news is not good. Or to be more precise, the news is not followed by the young ones studied by this Harvard investigation. Of course, I can sort of understand that reading the news could be a little off-putting, when it takes a half a paragraph (95 letters) just to print the name of the organization doing the studying of kids not following the news.
Unlike my Teenage Republican audience, the nationally representative sample of young adults analyzed by the Joan Shorenstein Center, etc. etc. study found that not only do only 16 percent of 18-30-year-olds read a newspaper regularly, but that most do not "make an appointment with the news every day the way older adults do."
Even worse, the report found that "What we found is that what [young] people mean when they say they are engaged in the news has much more of a glancing, superficial basis than anything we would have hoped. Young people seemed to think that just listening to the radio in the background was listening to the news."
And, contrary to what has become a new urban myth, these young adults are not flocking to the Internet to get their news. Miserably low as their newspaper and television news habits may be, they are nonetheless twice as likely to get their news from television than from the Internet.
When they do dabble with the news, they "pick and chose what they want [just as they do for entertainment] on their iPods, Tivos." In order to appeal to these young adults with limited news palettes, one editor quoted in the N.Y. Times story who specializes in reporting news to "young, urban professionals" (i.e. non-news readers) offers the little darlings "a short face-off with two sides of an issue. We believe it is a way of delivering content in a form like younger people are used to getting on the Internet."
Projecting all these trends and habits out into the near future -- it is not a very pretty picture. The politicians of tomorrow will be made up of well-informed former Teenage Republicans and well informed whatever their liberal counterparts are called struggling to make the great arguments of democracy to a general public that will make today's general electorate look like a nation of Oliver Wendell Holmeses.
A broadly ignorant public degrades a citizenry into a mob, and induces politicians to descend to demagogy. A fool and his vote are soon parted.
It would seem that my generation (the boomers) is the first since the rise of mass literacy to fail to pass on to our children the zest for news reading as a requisite for good citizenship.
Perhaps it is not the boomers parenting habits that are to blame. Perhaps it is induced by the good times that we have enjoyed as a nation these several decades. Perhaps it will take brutal and sustained hard times to get the news attention of our Tivoing, iPoding young urban professionals. Harrumph!