Sometime late last winter, I began to focus closely on what would happen in the primaries on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016. I realized I really needed to get on top of Donald Trump’s policy proposals. My first step was to go to his website. There I found nothing to read. The campaign did add text policy documents later, but at any early point, as best as I could tell, all that was available was video: 30-second clips, 2-minute clips. Nothing longer than that, as I recall. For me, this was torture. I craved an extended, efficient, information-rich text. There and then, I understood that this election was different.
In each video Trump was seated at his desk, wearing his characteristic jacket, white shirt, and tie, staring directly at the camera and delivering an emphatic statement. I don’t remember which issue areas I watched. Maybe trade. Maybe immigration. Maybe terrorism. It didn’t matter. The messages were the same as those he was delivering on the stump. I realized that the Trump campaign wasn’t talking to readers; it was delivering content to watchers. This meant Trump had identified an audience for himself different from that of any other candidate. He was the only candidate campaigning exclusively through television. All the other Republicans, despite appearing on television, were campaigning in text. They produced policy statements; they read written remarks. Even Marco Rubio, in delivering his concession speech, read from a text.
Trump appears to have understood that the U.S. is transitioning from a text-based to an oral culture. I don’t mean by this that a commitment to text will disappear, only that it has become a minority practice, once again a mark of membership in a social elite.
Barely more than a decade ago, the majority of adult Americans, with a high school degree or above, were daily readers of newspapers and news sites. Today this is no longer true. Now, at best about 40 percent of American adults “frequently” get their news from newspapers and their websites. In contrast, roughly 60 percent frequently get their news from television. Of course, television has dominated since the era of the broadcast Big Three. What’s new is reading’s precipitous decline. On average, people now give 20 minutes of weekend leisure time to reading and 3 and ¼ hours to television.
To suggest that we are transitioning from a text-based to an oral culture is not to make an evaluation. The majority culture in ancient Athens was also oral yet the large public performances of drama that engaged the citizenry were of high literary and intellectual merit. Also, it was possible for the city to conduct serious public decision-making, with a citizenry in which the majority relied almost exclusively on oral modes of communication.
As I watched the Republican primary and became attuned to this issue, I began paying attention to the analyses of the different grade levels at which each candidate spoke. Cruz routinely came out at the highest level—at about twelfth grade; his approach was especially effective with Republicans who held post-graduate degrees and pretty effective with college grads. Of course, there are fewer of those voters, though they do have high participation rates. Rubio’s speech was a bit simpler, and John Kasich’s even simpler than Rubio’s.
Trump’s language was, not surprisingly, simplest of all. He clocked in just below the sixth-grade level. As we have seen, he did exceptionally well with white voters without high school degrees. There are a lot of those voters, more even than Trump actually tapped into in this election. They have historically had lower rates of registration and participation than college-educated Americans, a phenomenon that scholar of education Meira Levinson has dubbed the participation gap.
In 2010, Adam Sherk, vice president of SEO and social media for Define Media Group, took advantage of a then recently released Google search filter that permitted filtering sites by reading level: basic, intermediate, and advanced. He used this tool to analyze news sites. It’s worth looking at his whole review, but here’s a sample of the results:
|% Basic Reading Level||% Intermediate||% Advanced|
|New York Times||7||85||7|
Those media organizations that have their roots in television have registered the downshift in the population’s interest in reading and appear to peg their content accordingly. Those organizations that have their roots in text, in contrast, generally deliver content at more sophisticated linguistic levels.
In other words, we are seeing two intersecting phenomena that probably both reflect and drive underlying shifts in American culture. The majority of Americans now prefer to watch or listen to their news rather than to read it. And the textual content produced by organizations associated with television and by those associated with traditional newspapers differs in the demands made on readers.
We are hearing a lot, in the wake of post-election analysis, about how our leading journalistic organizations failed to hear and tell the stories of working class and rural Americans. But there’s another issue, too. Which of those organizations is prepared to deliver those stories in forms the broad majority of Americans desire to consume? It is possible to deliver high -quality intellectual content in basic language and in visual-oral forms. To what degree should every news organization be responsible for attempting that? That, I suppose, depends on whether they wish to serve the country as a whole or only an elite.