Arguments

Dear Helpless Moron Reader

Is it too much to ask that we treat the reading public like adults?

By Nathan Pippenger

French novelist Patrick Modiano has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Admittedly, I had never heard of him before Thursday morning. So I suppose this article was directed at people like me:

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Critiquing explainer journalism has become something of a mini-cause for this blog, but the condescension is so obnoxious, and the template so infectious, that this really deserves some attention. Does the article really contain “everything” I need to know about this (presumably brilliant and difficult) French writer? Does it contain even one sentence from one of his books?

No. It does not. There are biographical details and recommendations about which novel I should start with, but not a word of the writing that actually earned him the prize. Here’s a comparison: Charles Dickens was a popular English novelist whose work often described the lives of the poor in Victorian London. Now you know everything you need to, even if you think David Copperfield is just the name of a Vegas magician. Right?

I don’t fault Vox for failing to post Modiano’s complete works on their website. I do fault them for suggesting I can know “everything” I need to know about him by reading only their brief overview. And for the article’s philistinic concluding question: “Why should I care about Modiano’s writing at all?” And for this:

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If you, as a reader, are not insulted by that question, you need to demand better treatment from journalists. This tone is becoming almost ubiquitous, even among publications that cater to an educated audience. They’re all succumbing to the same relentless pressure for web traffic, and they’re understandably coalescing around the same set of tried-and-true practices. One of those is talking down to you.

This trend may seem harmless, or perhaps merely inevitable—“just business” for the journalism industry. But that mood of complacency is only possible if you’ve forgotten an important lesson: journalism doesn’t just respond to the demands of a reading public. It also creates that public. Maybe it’s unfashionable or grandiose to worry about the reading culture we’re cultivating, or the kind of relationship writers should have to their audience. But unless you know your every reader personally, you have no way of knowing what knowledge they’re bringing to your article. You don’t know what they need to know about a topic. You don’t know for what purpose they may be reading your piece. It’s not too much to ask of publications, then, that they avoid habitually infantilizing their readers.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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