Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Generation Overwhelmed?

By Shawn Healy
Courtney Martin dissected Thomas Friedman's "Generation Q" hypothesis in an October 22nd article published in the online edition of The American Prospect. She obviously feels personally slighted by Friedman's admonition of the modern cohort for "point and click activism," but her small group of friends sounds like an exception to the post-Baby Boom generation that occasionally utters a feint echo of the activism of our parents'.

Martin contests Friedman's labels of "quiet" and "apathetic," arguing instead that "Generation Q" is distracted, outraged, and apathetic, hence the tendency to tune out and bloviate about sweet nothings on Facebook. Friedman is probably guilty of generalizing for a diverse bunch, and a mandatory draft was certainly the impetus of much of the opposition to the Vietnam War during his formative years, but Martin misses his larger point, and the evidence is on his side.

True, the 24-hour news cycle showers us with a tsunami of information should we open that door, but contrary to Martin's contention, it did not invent a "big and brutal" world. It merely does a better job of opening our eyes to what happens beyond our computer screens. Furthermore, causes throughout American history have been many and diverse, and activists of all stripes have been forced to pick and choose, devoting our time to the ones we deem most worthy.

Additionally, quantitative data reveals overwhelming evidence that a generation of Americans has abandoned the news, a critical component of civic engagement and activism. Paging through "Young People and the News," a July 2007 report produced by the Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, one is forced to conclude that "Generation Q" is not overwhelmed, but instead clueless. Whereas just a few decades ago there was little age difference in news consumption across multiple media (variation was instead correlated with education), dramatic disparities by age group have since surfaced. Given the plethora of options available to us all, one could argue that older Americans should struggle most with an ever-expanding menu given the fact that they were raised in "simpler" times.

Young people have abandoned the newspaper (only 5% are self-identified "heavy users" who read one daily), and are also less likely than their older (31 and over) counterparts to watch television news, to listen to radio news, and even to surf the internet for news. When it comes to "hard news," the ingredients pertinent to civic participation, the gap grows even wider. The deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Barbaro, tragic as they were, contribute little to the debate over global warming. True, news outlets contribute to this "hard news" deficit, but seasoned consumers have a myriad of options in search of the "currency of democracy."

How, then, do we make certain that younger Americans mimic the habits and develop of the passion of Martin and her peers?

As a self-described news junkie just removed from the "Generation Q," a look back to my formative years might be helpful.

I grew up in Milwaukee, at the time a two-newspaper town, and had both delivered to my home on a daily basis, the Sentinel in the morning, and the Journal in the afternoon. I was first and foremost a sports fan as a young boy, and the papers provided recaps of last night's game, features about my diamond, hard court, and gridiron heroes, and enough statistics to satisfy my number-hungry tendencies. To read about the Brewers, however, I had to remove the protective layers of the paper otherwise known as the front page, metro and business sections, even the funnies. In the process, I couldn't help but read about the latest election, local scandal, stock market crash, or Doonesbury satire. Inadvertently, at first, I was exposed to a world of news I didn't otherwise seek (Such is the means by which most young Americans encounter hard news even now, be it the hourly segment on their top-40 radio station or the headlines on their Google home page. ). Soon I was staying up late to watch political conventions, listening to local news radio, even writing my state and national representatives. In short, the news bug led to greater interest, and involvement.

I also believe that older role models can demonstrate adequate news consumption by subscribing to the daily paper as my parents and grandparents did, watch the nightly news as a family, and listen to NPR and its AM equivalents in the car. Moreover, given the untold hours that young people spend online and text messaging, they should be instructed on how to access hard news in the process, for if "Generation Q" knows anything, they are proficient multitaskers.

Our schools must also play a pivotal role in the process, for it remains the last socializing institution to which Americans of all classes, races, and ethnicities are exposed. Current events should be incorporated across the curriculum, and media literacy should be a graduation requirement at the middle and high school levels. Local newspapers offer their product free of charge to willing teachers and schools, and weekly magazines go out of their way to develop curriculum that corresponds with their publications.

My critique of Martin centered almost entirely on news consumption, and perhaps this is a little unfair, but I believe it is the one variable that we can change when we talk about inspiring the next generation to aspire to a cause greater than the own personal ambitions, whether it be the sustenance of representative democracy in the United States, or world peace. In the end, I think that Friedman is right. Younger Americans are tuned in to their personal lives, but distracted from their larger place in a global society. Daily news consumption, while no panacea, would contribute greatly to reversing this dismal trend.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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