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Confessions of a smart-ass …

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Every time I begin to think I’m smart — really smart — I usually end up regretting it.

I ought to be smart, I tell myself — after all, there’s a bunch of letters after my name that say so. When that happens, I remember C. Wright Mills, a mid-20th century sociologist who coined the phrase “second-hand world.” Mills wrote:

The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have personally experienced, and their own experience is always indirect.

The quality of their lives is determined by meanings they have received from others. Everyone lives in a world of such meanings. No man stands alone directly confronting a world of solid facts. …

[I]n their everyday life they do not experience a world of solid fact; their experience itself is selected by stereotyped meanings and shaped by readymade interpretations. Their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet.

A strict reading of Mills suggests the media made me what I am — a repository of the experiences of others relayed to me by media because I could not experience them first-hand.

I read USAToday, listen to NPR and watch CNN — therefore I am. True, after nearly six decades of life, I’ve learned a thing or two on my own. But media — from grade-school texts to some of the godawful music produced today to Web sites to those 500 cable channels — have done most of the filling of the vessel that is me.

I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, I’m a curious sort, and I’d like to know more about, say, Antarctica, but I’d rather not travel there. So I learned more about the continent because this winter my local paper ran a series by a local man who worked there as a cook, sending his reports by e-mail.

But lately I’ve begun to wonder about the worth of all that media content constantly infusing me. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press (yes, that Mitch Album) argues that cable news in particular gives a false sense of being informed:

Sure, there’s value in being informed. But given the choice between not knowing something or claiming you know it because you saw a 20-second story on it, well, which is more dangerous? We all feel smarter with cable news. But we also feel entitled to scream opinions about foreign governments or some abusive parent in Florida. Are we better for that?

When the ever-irritating but critically thoughtful lullabypit roped me into blogging a few months back, I thought it’d be a breeze. After all, I’d written newspaper editorials for 10 years. I knew a lot of stuff, I told myself, and that makes me smart.

Not much time passed before I realized I had become what Albom found: a guy building arguments with 20-second bursts of incomplete knowledge. That’s what blogging has taught me. As a professional generalist (i.e., a former journalist), I know a little about a lot of subjects. Modern media, particularly my addiction to cable news, compounded that.

I still rely on that “second-hand world.” But I spend more time now with the TV off and a book in my lap instead. Blogging taught me that I need to read more. And to read more widely. I had been blogging as a self-proclaimed media critic. But I knew little of the worlds of corporate finance, public relations, advertising, media regulation and media politics. That made me less than credible.

So I read. The Economist. Businessweek. The Nation, and other magazines with political points of view. Trade journals I’ve always avoided — PRWeek, AdAge, Broadcasting & Cable. I read books written by bloggers and suggested by other bloggers. I read the text of legislation online through the Library of Congress so I know what the damn bills say instead of depending on CNN to tell me what they say. Amazon’s making a fortune off me this summer as I stockpile books to read.

Maybe I’ll get smarter. I’ll let you know if I do.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 13, 2005 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. But you’re a SELF-MADE smart-ass…
    Although I agree that we are all products of a larger world than our own experiences allow for, I think you forget one crucial fact: While the media has provided all this extra content and context for your second-hand world, YOU have been the one choosing what messages to expose yourself to. So, your second-hand world is still largely of your own making.
    While the media acts as a gatekeeper, deciding what content to provide, the sheer volume of media outlets these days provides the opportunity to find just about any content you want. And you, Dr. Denny, I am certain, have been smart enough and savvy enough, particularly as you’ve aged (like a fine wine, I might add), to select content that’s more than mere blather. (My children, by contrast, are generally much less discriminating.)
    Sure, he media is everywhere, and it’s deluging us with messages, but it’s not all junk–so long as we CHOOSE what we watch/read/listen to and not let the deluge simply wash over us.


    June 14, 2005 at 3:17 am

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