Grown-up Washington political types can complain all they want about the triviality of the political discourse, the degradation of campaigns into negative and meretricious advertising and the often superficial treatment of news issues by the media. But let the younger generation display its tacit agreement with those appraisals and cries of despair go up: the youth of the country are disengaged! The young aren't interested in the news! This is the lugubrious message of "The Age of Indifference," a study of the current-events awareness and media habits of people under 30, produced by the understandably interested Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press.
The study finds that people under 30 today are less likely to have read a newspaper "yesterday" than their counterparts of 25 years back; that their interest in the supposedly less demanding TV news shows is low, with the number who saw a news show "yesterday" falling to 42 from 57 percent; and that fewer young people nowadays can identify figures of current news importance, whether they be Helmut Kohl or the winner of the recent Nicaragua elections. From here it is but a step to the conclusion that young people don't care about matters beyond their immediate sphere, that they have no sense of citizenship or civic duty and that their presence on the scene will further erode the polity and the voter participation rate.
But is this leap really justified? And do good citizenship and public engagement really stand or fall by the watching of TV news and the reading of daily newspapers?
It may indeed be true -- it probably is true -- that those under 30 are less aware of day-to-day political contortions than their parents. But odd though it may seem to say so in a newspaper, I doubt that these people's neglect of the daily media is necessarily either the best indicator of their political engagement or its most significant result. The focus needs widening. What matters far more than students' daily news intake is the quality of history, political science and civics being taught them over the years in school. And it's no secret what's happened to that.
It would be nice, of course, if young people could identify public figures at the time they were prominent. How much better, though, if they can grasp the context of that prominence -- if they bring to it any background beyond the small amount that can be shoehorned into even the best news account. People start following the news when they have a reason to, not when the coverage is perfect.
The curriculum that would offer them reasons has deteriorated in many ways, but the worst shortfalls are in the most recent events. In fall 1977 my 10th-grade American history teacher started off the survey course by observing that the syllabus had grown too long to cover in a year: "I have to keep reminding myself that not only am I getting older every year, you're getting younger." True to his prediction, we finished "the inter-war period," "America in World War II" and "America since the war" all in one headlong week in May. Much has been made of the near-complete uninterest with which American TV viewers greeted the opening of the Berlin Wall. Whatever the overall explanation or the quality of coverage, it cannot have been irrelevant that in all likelihood many younger viewers had sat through school, as I did, without once hearing the Berlin Wall mentioned.
On subjects where young people have had access to information -- whether through their own lives or at a remove -- this so-called indifferent generation shows no lack of fire. College officials, for instance, say unanimously that today's students are more engaged than their predecessors in community and volunteer service. The Times Mirror study shows they maintain a lively interest in the abortion issue and in matters touching popular culture -- for instance, the current art-and-obscenity flap.
As for their seeming cynicism about politics and political campaigns, it may have something to do with the product on offer. What perversity of the media marketing wizards leads them to react to evidence of uninterest -- a seemingly shouted message, by the non-watching young, that there's not enough substance in political or news media to hold their attention -- with the assumption that they should offer even less of that substance the next time around? The Times Mirror authors themselves note that majorities of young viewers say they were introduced to candidates through campaign commercials -- and that those same majorities ignore politics and consider politicians liars and voting a waste of time. Then they opine condescendingly in conclusion that "the 30-second commercial spot is a particularly appropriate medium for the TV generation."
If that's really what they think, no wonder the intended audience is flipping the dial. A public conversation worth more attention might get more.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.