The average duration of Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses is 64 minutes. George W. Bush’s, 52 minutes. Bill Clinton’s, 75 minutes. Bush, Sr. Reagan, Carter, LBJ and Nixon all managed to stay under hour mark, with Nixon being the most laconic at an average of 35 minutes. Obama’s addresses ran about 7000 words on average, Clinton’s, 7500. Most of the others ran in the 4000-5000 word range.

How long would it take you to read those speeches? An average college student reads 450 words per minute. Business executives and college professors read significantly faster, the average reader somewhat slower. We could therefore expect to read a Barack Obama state of the union address in 20 minutes or so. We could also benefit from reading that speech without being guided by vocal inflection or stylings, without applause breaks, and without having to sit in front of a television, computer monitor or tablet. Right there, we’ve recovered 44 minutes of our lives, give or take. We could also scan the speech, picking out the salient points without having to read every word. If we practice doing that, we could probably get as much information as there is to be had in well under 20 minutes.

We could also read summaries of those SOTU addresses, summaries that all the major news outlets are all too happy to create. And annotate. And opine on. In fact, I bet we could read half a dozen summaries and analyses, from a range of political viewpoints, in less time than it would take to listen to the speech once.

So, why should we listen?

Most talking head news and opinion shows run either 30 or 60 minutes. A quarter of that time is devoted to commercials, some is devoted to stories I might have no interest in, and on interview and debate shows there’s a whole lot of interrupting and talking-over-each-other. The modern state of televised discourse also strongly favors quick sound-bite statements over longer explanations, even when the latter are warranted. Even the longer explanations are short and insufficient, especially when an issue that requires some depth of discussion to fully explain. Meanwhile, with the Internet and search engines, I can call up a wealth of information and opinions on any topic, at a convenient time and location, and delve far deeper into that topic in far less time than any televised or radio program could. I can also research and validate or repudiate assertions and data points as I delve, I can save links, print PDFs, or even copy and paste salient points for future reference. There’s no frustration from having to hear someone start a point only to have it interrupted. There are no “personalities” to be annoyed by, and if one of those personalities says something of significance, it’ll appear in text form on the Net fairly quickly.

Reading online newspapers, news sites and blogs, I can touch dozens of stories in minutes. Watching or listening to a news program, I get what they want to feed me, how they want to feed it to me, and edited down to the equivalent of a couple paragraphs. The ready access to search engines for additional information, fact validation or refutation, and alternate opinions that sitting on a laptop or holding a tablet offers just isn’t there, and it’s easy to fall into a state of semi-attention as time slips away.

As an added bonus, many, if not most, news and opinion sites have comment sections. The signal-to-noise ratio of those sections varies tremendously. Some have pretty substantial populations of informed and erudite opiners (e.g. the Wall Street Journal), and some are just chock full of name-callers, flame-throwers, haters and other assorted morons. Nevertheless, even the latter can give some sense of people’s attitudes, what the popular memes of the moment might be, and an occasional kernel or gem of actual thought. Even if I don’t join the fracas, comments sections are a useful source, and when I do dive into the cesspools, I can see how my points and arguments play in hostile environments.

Reading news and opinion on the internet is an experience we manage ourselves. Listening to news and opinion on television or radio is an exercise in being slowly spoon-fed. Which one sounds more productive?

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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