Commentary: Americans' interest in world news taking backseat to pop culture

In times like these, Ellen DeGeneres seems more relevant than Elena Kagan

"Jay-walking" aside, the general ignorance of the American public about, well, pretty much everything that relates to the res publica is no laughing matter.

The more media outlets there are and the more pundits that post out there in cyberspace, the less we seem to know or be able to retain or care about the world at large.

Ennui has set in for anything in our culture other than for entertainment. Even preachers are, per a New York Times op-ed piece Sunday, feeling burnout from having to amuse their congregations as opposed to providing them with moral uplift.

It has to be frustrating to be in the "serious" mainstream news business and realize how little resonates with such a distracted, disinterested or disbelieving public. I don't think it all can be chalked up to fragmentation of the audience -- nor to the steroids that Fox News has injected into the mix.

For all kinds of reasons, objectivity has become a derisive term or a quaint aspiration, since no one nowadays imagines such a stance to even be possible; opinion -- the sharper, the more strident, the more partial it is -- the louder seems to be its echo. As a result, facts and context often get short shrift: Consider the high-tech lynching of that hapless government apparatchik Shirley Sherrod a couple of weeks ago. Although mercifully briefly, a worrying swathe of the media were drawn into or complicit in the affair.

At least the Sunday morning news shows try to be an oasis in a desert of superficiality. Candy Crowley is finding her footing on "State of the Union," and Fareed Zakaria continues to attempt to make sense of complicated subjects like the debate over mosques in our midst. These are stalwarts who are unglamorous and unfunny but still engaging.

They and others that plow the political field are finding it hard going. And why wouldn't they?

There's a widespread feeling that government no longer functions, that politicians have let their constituents down, and that trying to make sense of political decisions, not to mention hearing different views on how things should be accomplished, seems no longer worth the effort. In short, why watch the news? Plus, dare I add, the effort it takes to watch something that isn't instantly entertaining is greater now: We've become more quickly and easily bored. We might even have Obama fatigue.

It's no wonder that a lot more of our individual time and effort is going into cultivating our own gardens on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or what have you, but whether that helps us see over our own fences is doubtful.

The U.S. is ranked No. 12 among nations whose young people obtain college degrees; we used to be No. 1. Hard-hit states, which means just about all 50, are, thanks to the recession and other unaddressed woes, cutting back on what already were stretched-thin education budgets. Libraries are posting shorter hours or being closed down; teachers are being laid off or taking pay cuts. Roads and bridges used to be one of the country's great engineering glories; now we only focus on them when they're being blown up in the latest blockbuster movie.

Hollywood, it turns out, is more effectual and influential in many respects than Washington: People are anti-government and anti-establishment; they are not anti-entertainment, even if they don't like the imagined ethos of Tinseltown itself. And the entertainment side of our major media conglomerates are, despite problems here and there, firing on most all cylinders; their news side are by and large loss leaders.

Thus, we can only hope we'll be treated to an episode of "Glee" (forget about "Gossip Girl" and its ilk) where actual studying -- history or math or engineering -- is dramatized to be cool. (Just showing a sympathetic nerd is not enough.) Or an episode of "Ice Road Truckers" where the condition of roads and what's needed to fix them comes up. Or in addition to "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," producers come up with "Extreme Makeover: Bridges and Tunnels."

Not even news from the war front(s) makes much of an impact these days. We are wearied by the length of the thing, irritated by the expense of it all, and bored even by the increasingly scant coverage of it. Only a scandal, like Gen. Stanley McChrystal's unfiltered remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, intermittently piques our interest.

Much more critical a development and worth public discussion is the recent release by Wikileaks to key media outlets here and in Europe classified documents about the war in Afghanistan. Unlike what happened when Daniel Elsberg turned the Pentagon Papers over to the New York Times during the Vietnam War, there hardly was a peep from the public or much to say by the press. We were too busy: Musical "judges" chairs on "American Idol" suddenly had been vacated, risking the destabilization of the Western world -- or at least of the Fox network.

In short, a lot more people are chattering about Ellen DeGeneres leaving her judge's seat than they are about Elena Kagan getting hers. Many more are speculating about how the world will change without Simon Cowell dispensing his zingers than they are about what that other court will be like without Justice John Paul Stevens.

As for young people's enthusiasms, I can remember a time when high schoolers lined up to be considered pages in the state capital; the only long lines I'm aware of now are for "Idol" auditions.

Amusing in a surreal way though it might be, I somehow doubt the just-announced reality project focused on, of all people, Levi Johnston from the Palin Posse, and his pursuit of the mayoralty of Wasilla, Alaska, will do much to change young people's minds.