More Dumbing Down

By Jeffrey Page
We’ve been talking for years about the dumbing down of America, and if you had any doubt that it was happening, all you had to do was tune in to the news on All Things Considered this week on National Public Radio.

ATC wasn’t reporting a story about the dismissal of Americans as a bunch of ignorant boobs. Rather, it was participating in it. I don’t go into this with a bias against NPR. I like NPR. But somebody in charge needs to remember what journalism is and also to understand that the American people are not a bunch of jerks.

The All Things Considered story in question was about the rise and fall in the price of housing from 2001 until now, as reported by the Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

There wasn’t much to the story, which was produced for ATC by Planet Money, other than that in the decade ending this year, prices in Dallas had just remained pretty much flat and wound up barely increased from 10 years ago. Prices in Miami did a little better but were down about 50 percent since their spike in mid-2006. And while All Things Considered announced this story as a report on the nation’s “faltering housing market,” Planet Money reported that home prices were increasing.

Actually, All things Considered introduced it as more than that. The anchor called it “a musical twist on the faltering housing market.” A musical twist? Those words about a story on the economy are cause for alarm.

To present this news, Planet Money, which National Public Radio described as “a multimedia team covering the global economy,” converted the yearly numbers to musical notes and then got a baritone studying at Julliard to sing the notes.

I imagine the assumption was (a) this’ll be cute or (b) the listeners are incapable of understanding simple math and somehow would be baffled when informed that home prices in this decade reached their peak by 2007. So Planet Money decided to turn an otherwise important story into a bit of musical-comedy. The baritone sang, and if you happened to have tuned in late and missed the introduction to the story, you might have thought you were hearing a crocodile in heat.

Aside from making the Case-Shiller findings a joke, Planet Money was so busy chortling over its baritone-as-reporting-medium that it never mentioned actual dollar figures. Prices are up in Miami? How much on average? They didn’t say.

Nor did the Planet Money story say why prices rose through 9/11 to a 2007 peak and then began their descent.

Nor did Planet Money ask Case-Shiller for its view on the future of the housing market.

Nor did Planet Money explain why it decided to focus on Miami and Dallas. What about New York? What about Phoenix? Seattle? Jackson, Miss.? Oklahoma City? The Planet Money reporters noted that the national figure was for 20 cities, but never revealed which ones.

In other words, there wasn’t much news in this news report. But the Planet Money report raises some important questions. Is this the kind of “journalism” we can anticipate as we proceed through the 21st Century? It was not so long ago when news was taken seriously, as an essential for an educated and concerned public.

What do you think? Am I overreacting?

Jeff can be reached at


2 Responses to “More Dumbing Down”

  1. LeeAgain Says:

    Jeffrey, since you asked, yes. You are overreacting. Somebody at NPR had a zany (although creative) streak and I, for one, welcome the comedic relief amidst the bleak news we all hear most of the time these days. Most newspapers, magazines and news shows offer some sort of light story to offset the down-to-earth nature of news reporting. A bit of candy now and then, provided it doesn’t become a steady diet, helps make the medicine go down.

  2. LeeAgain Says:

    Some additional thoughts to add to my previous comment:

    I’m sure the musical NPR piece you’ve described above left serious listeners wanting more information. And a good journalist – such as yourself – could easily be bothered by the lack of dollar figures and other meaningful data. I can understand how an exacting person might react to something that may have been meant merely as a lark.

Leave a Reply