Monday, January 14, 2008

"… everything we do is really about the reader"

I need to return to just why it is I feel so strongly that "caveat lector" is more than just a play on the oldest warning in the marketplace. It has to do with how dangerous it is for us to be passive readers, whether it involves our eyes wandering idly across a sheet of newsprint, our ears vaguely monitoring some reporter on the radio while waiting for the light to change, or our habit of using the television as a substitute for dinner-time conversation. Andy Rosenthal, editor of the editorial page for The New York Times, may have told John Koblin of The New York Observer "that everything we do is really about the reader" (in an interview about "a recent Maureen Dowd column published with a 'Derry, N.H.' dateline even though she filed it from Jerusalem"); but what he revealed was a model of reader behavior that, at best, is highly demanding and, at worst, is dangerously manipulative. (There is also the "blissfully ignorant" position between those two extremes; but, for the purposes of this particular argument, I shall let that option slide.) Given how much (particularly digital) ink has been spilled on the worst possible interpretation of his words (Koblin cited the Columbia Journalism Review as an example), I would like to explore the positive alternative, because it may ultimately be an injunction for just to change our reading practices from passive to active. If this is the case, just what does it mean to be an active reader?

My answer to this question is basically motivated by the caveat lector rule. I would like to propose that today's reader of news and commentary needs to subject any "text" (scare quotes added to accommodate the full variety of media) to three validating procedures:

  1. Authentication
  2. Accountability
  3. Asset management

(I am hoping that, by formulating these as three As, they will be easy to remember, because we shall have to carry them with us in all of our reading situations.) Let me deal with each of these in turn.

In my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the third definition of "authentic" is "Entitled to belief as stating or according with fact; reliable, trustworthy." I take authentication to be the means by which we determine whether or not a text is authentic according to this definition. At the micro-level it deals with questions such as whether or not a story about events in New Hampshire published under a New Hampshire dateline can be traced back to the author's presence in New Hampshire to witness those events. Given how mobile reporters now are, I can appreciate why Rosenthal chose to call a dateline a "kind of anachronism." Indeed, it reflects on my personal experience: I write about performances of music and opera; but I do not file my posts from my seat in Davies Symphony Hall. As must have been evident from my last such post, I need time to reflect on the experience before writing about it; and, when I am ready to write, I often have to draw on a lot of reference material that is available at my home. Of course the blogosphere does not require me to provide a dateline, and that is why I am sympathetic with Rosenthal. To do so would, indeed, by anachronistic.

However, there is also a macro-level of authentication. This involves a recent comment I made that "the most important thing an editor can do is to ask, 'Really?' in response to any copy handed to him/her." This, too, gets to the heart of that definition of "authentic," not at the level of any specific detail but at the level of whether or not the "story," taken as a whole, "makes sense." This is not easy matter (which is why it is so important); and, for all of his fulminations, I cannot, for the life of me, figure out whether or not Rosenthal recognizes this as part of his job description (which is why I make comments about losing faith in The New York Times as a "signal source").

This takes us to the issue of accountability. This is the recognition that one or more individuals are responsible for what you are reading; and you, as a reader, have a right to know who they are. As we have seen in some of the more blatant Wikipedia horror stories, this is particularly important when the text is about you; but, regardless of the subject matter, it is a problem that is more likely to surface on the Internet than in print journalism. However, even in print journalism we run into the problem of "protected sources," whose authenticity must be taken on faith; and for an active reader taking anything on faith can be a dangerous proposition!

Finally, we have the matter of asset management, which (with apologies to John Donne) involves little more than the precept that no story is an island unto itself. To invoke a radically different culture, it is a reflection of the premise of the Vedic thinkers (including those who wrote the texts of the Upanishads) that the discovery of connections constitutes knowledge. We never understand any story in isolation; we only understand it through its connection to a context of other stories. Thus, we are not only responsible for establishing the authentication and accountability of what we read; we are also responsible for remembering what we read in anticipating the impact that our "past reading history" will have on our "present reading behavior." Of course we are all familiar with the ways in which memory can fail us when we most need it; so, not withstanding Platonic parables about the dangers of writing systems, writing is often the best way in which we can reinforce our memories. If we then choose to write into a blog, we may even enjoy the luxury of a search engine as a further extension of our capacity for memory.

I called these three enumerated items "validating procedures." The "big picture" is that "active reading" is all about the things we do (activities) to distinguish signal from noise in what we read. The passive reader takes it for granted that the text is all signal; the active reader knows better. In other words Rosenthal is, as I previously suggested, laying down some pretty heavy demands for what a reader of The New York Times is supposed to do.

Is this a reasonable demand? I find it hard to believe that anyone trying to read the Times while riding the Long Island Railroad or the A Train would think so. Indeed, I suspect it would be very difficult to be such an active reader without a broadband responsive connection to the Internet; and, unless I am mistaken, your iPhone is not going to get that on the A Train (thus dodging the question of whether or not you are in an appropriate mental state for active reading at all while riding the subway in New York)! Thus my effort to put a positive spin on what Rosenthal told Koblin has hit a pretty solid brick wall, because he is as much as saying that he is not putting out a newspaper that we can read with our usual newspaper-reading habits. Put another way, while he may have been right in calling datelines a "kind of anachronism," they are a necessary anachronism for the way most of us read our daily newspapers. Furthermore, to continue that particular quote in Koblin's article, datelines are not "a little bit of an affectation," because their necessity means that they are not an affectation at all!

Let's take this one more level: Is active reading a reasonable demand at all? On the one hand it certainly is if you want to obey that caveat; but in "real life" caveat lector should probably he handled the same way as caveat emptor. When I buy a half gallon of milk at Safeway, I check the expiration date; but I do not mount a full-scale investigation of the source for Safeway's own brand of milk. I take it for granted that, if Safeway is doing something dodgy with the milk they are selling me, I will learn it through my news sources, hopefully sooner rather than later. So I can be a wary buyer without deep-ending my wariness for every purchase I make; and I believe that we can be wary readers in exactly the same way. To use the example that Rosenthal put to Koblin, if I read somewhere "that all the reporters from the New York Times are Martians," then I know that it is time for me to kick in my skills that address authentication, accountability, and asset management; but I probably do not have to do this if I read that O'Hare Airport has been shut down by a major blizzard.

I have another strategy that also generally works for me: If I am going to make a heavy investment of my active reading cycles, I would like to be rewarded for my efforts. Thus, I get a lot of satisfaction out of having to read The New York Review actively; and that satisfaction serves as a sort of emotional reward. At the opposite extreme I find nothing rewarding in debunking anything that appears in The National Enquirer, which is why not even idle curiosity in the Safeway checkout line draws me to that rag.

Yesterday my wife and I happened to watch the Book TV broadcast of a talk Michael Pollan gave about In Defense of Food at the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Ironically, we watched this right after we had returned from our weekly trip to Safeway!) Pollan has gotten so much attention in promoting this book that many of us have probably committed his three rules for eating to memory:

  1. Eat food
  2. Not a lot
  3. Mostly plants

What I enjoyed about his talk was the way it which he exposed "nutritionism" as an ideology that, like most ideologies, is more likely to do harm than good. His rules amount to saying that we can get beyond such an ideology with little more than basic common sense (just as those before us did before that ideology had even been conceived). The same is probably true of how we approach reading and how we decide when we need to be active, rather than passive. It leaves me wondering if the whole reason the media business wants to overwhelm us with so much "content" (scare quotes intended) is that they do better business when we abandon such common sense (and start reading things like The National Enquirer)!

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