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You Will Be Shocked at How Ignorant Americans Really Are

What Americans don't know and don't understand is quite an obstacle to progress.
 
 
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If you think the widening chasm between the rich and the rest spells trouble for American democracy, have a look at the growing gulf between the information-rich and-poor.

Earlier this year, a Harvard economist’s jaw-dropping study of American’s beliefs about the distribution of American wealth became a  viral video.  Now a  new Pew study of the distribution of American news consumption is just as flabbergasting. 

According to the Harvard study, most people believe that the top 20 percent of the country owns about half the nation’s wealth, and that the lower 60 percent combined, including the 20 percent in the middle, have only about 20 percent of the wealth.  A whopping 92 percent of Americans think this is out of whack; in the ideal distribution, they said, the lower 60 percent would have about half of the wealth, with the middle 20 percent of the people owning 20 percent of the wealth. What’s astonishing about this is how wrong Americans are about reality.  In fact, the bottom 80 percent owns only 7 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the top 1 percent hold more of the country’s wealth –  40 percent – than 9 out of 10 people think the top 20 percent should have.  The top 10 percent of earners take home  half the income of the country; in 2012, the top 1 percent earned more than a fifth of U.S. income – the highest share since the government began collecting the data a century ago. 

But America’s information inequality is at least as shocking as its economic inequality.

Pew sliced the TV news audience into thirds: heavy, medium and light.  In my Jeffersonian fantasy, that distribution would look like a bell curve; in fact, it looks like a cliff.  Heavy viewers watch a little over two hours of TV news a day, but medium viewers barely watch a quarter of an hour and light viewers average only two minutes a day.  The top third of the country does 88 percent of the day’s TV news viewing; the middle third watches only 10 percent of the total time; the bottom third sees just 2 percent of the minutes of news consumed.  Two-thirds of Americans live in an information underclass as journalistically impoverished as the minuscule bazillionaire class is triumphant.This month, the Pew Research Journalism Project reported how Americans get their news at home.  If you think it’s from the Internet, you’ll be surprised that the 38 percent of us who access news at home on a desktop or laptop spend an average of only 90 seconds a day getting news online.  America’s dominant news source is television, and the disparity between heavy viewers of TV news and everyone else is as startling as the gap between the plutocrats and the people.

As for those heavy news viewers, says Pew, “There is no news junkie like a cable junkie.”  A heavy local news viewer watches about 22 minutes of it a day at home, and a heavy network news viewer watches about 32 minutes a day.  But a heavy cable news consumer averages 72 minutes of it a day. The gap between heavy, medium and light cable news viewers is especially stark.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably in that 72-minutes-of-cable-news-a-day class.  But medium cable news viewers see barely more than three minutes of it a day, and light cable news viewers see about 12 seconds of it a day.  In other words, either you live in the country that watches more than an hour of Blitzer, O’Reilly, Maddow, et al, a day – or in the country that watches virtually none of them at all. 

 
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