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A reflection of America: the president doesn't read


The big news of the past week has been Michael Wolff's tell-all, inside-the-Trump-White-House book, "Fire and Fury."

Hordes of Americans dashed out and bought it, even though newspapers and magazines and websites had already pulled out all the juicy stuff. Apparently, some of what's in it is important, some not, but for anybody concerned about the present occupant of the White House, the book promises to be riveting, satisfying – and confirming. We're not crazy. He is.

We have to take some of the book's revelations with a grain of salt, because Wolff himself has a less-than-stellar reputation. New York Times writer Michael Grynbaum offered this quote from the late Times' media columnist David Carr, writing about an earlier Wolff book: “Historically, one of the problems with Wolff’s omniscience is that while he may know all, he gets some of it wrong.”

Still, Wolff's focus on the president's intellect and his decision-making process is important. And similar stories have been told by others who have seen Trump in action.

We can argue about whether Donald Trump is sane and stable. But if the early excerpts from the book are any indication, Wolff simply reinforces one thing we should already know: This president is not at all qualified to lead the country. Intelligence, knowledge of history, intimate familiarity with the Constitution, a deep understanding of the nations and cultures of the world: these should be basic requirements.

A lot has already been written about Trump's dislike of reading, and "Fire and Fury" apparently adds to the evidence. In The Atlantic, David Graham quotes this segment from the book, from an e-mail from Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn: "It's worse than you can imagine... Trump won't read anything – not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing."

Trump does get the news – from Fox and Friends, which is both Trump-friendly and closely aligned with Trump on current issues.

But while we're snorting about what we learn from "Fire and Fury," should we ask how much better the rest of us are? In getting his news from television, Trump is simply mimicking the US population. That's where most Americans get their news, according to a Pew Research report last summer. Television news, tough – even unbiased, "mainstream" television news – simply skims the surface of important developments.

Print ranks fourth out of four among Americans' news sources, behind television, online, and radio, in that order. It may be encouraging that online ranks high, and we may read more than this president does, but as a country, on the left and the right, we're getting lazy.

We're also getting very selective in our reading, and in what we turn to as an online news source. Among the top five cable networks this past fall: the opinionated Fox and MSNBC.

And while it's still a minority choice, 18 percent of Americans now rely on social media as one of their news sources.

We can't possibly learn enough this way to be good citizens. But it's quick and easy. Why read a daily newspaper – why subscribe to a local daily and a national daily and read them both – if you can scan the headlines on websites and get the really important stuff from Facebook?

As a print journalist, I'm not an impartial observer in this discussion, obviously. And I hope I'm right in thinking that whatever form journalism survives in, 50 years from now Americans will still think it's important. But I do worry when I look at the data in the Pew research and think about how complicated the world will continue to be.

Presidents can't get the news they need from Tweets and TV snippets and Fox and Friends or Rachel Maddow. And neither can citizens.

"We are what we read," to quote a book review from Sunday's New York Times. And I'm worried about what we're reading, and how little.