What Do Readers Digest?: The Uyo Book Club Debate on Ethical Journalism, Survival, and Masked Propaganda

“Reader’s Digest UK Shuts Down After 86 Years”. This was the caption, the heading. Whether as a literati or casual reader, this caption – the shutdown of a media house and a fondly-read publication – was always going to elicit reactions. Nsikak Essien had forwarded the news article with the caption above to the Uyo Book Club WhatsApp group. The reactions to it, expectedly, were instant and those of sadness.

What followed were eulogies to Reader’s Digest by members, including the D.G. of the Ibom Leadership Entrepreneurial Development Center (Ibom-LED) Ekaette Umoh, fondly recollecting how its eagerly-anticipated periodical editions helped shape their worldview. This shaping of worldview would prove contentious later. But, for now, we’d focus on the very stirring, thought-provoking question by Iboro Otongaran :”Is this another triumph of the low culture of the digital age over the cultivated literary palate that has found less and less favour in recent times across social groups and jurisdictions?”

I suppose the never-ending polarising debate about the impact of social media on quality journalism would rage on and on. And Nsikak Essien‘ s counter adds to the conversation: “Low culture? Doubtful. Reader’s Digest was a very good magazine in a not too big bookshelf. But today there are many good content magazines with easier reach through digital technology. That’s my understanding of their plight.” Followed hotly at the heels came the book club’s founder, Udeme Nana‘s response: “I don’t think the concept of ‘low culture’ as applied here is spot on . Pop culture, yes, but not low culture. The fate of Reader’s Digest is another example of failure to adapt. With research, maybe, they could have ported to digital platforms to appeal to the vast population of digital natives who consume on those platforms. Time and Newsweek magazines passed through this route. But this isn’t a death knell for our dear old hard copies of reading materials.”

Iboro Otongaran, reiterating his stance, shed more light on why the digital age itself is the culprit of quality journalism: “What I’m saying is not peculiar to [Reader’s Digest] that’s why I say another triumph. Time , Newsweek, etc are struggling too. They’re funded in the main from support businesses. We’re witnessing the ascendancy of low taste luxuriating in the digital ecosystem. Publications that are focused on quality and high-minded fare appear to be doomed. The age of discrimination and selection seems to be slipping away. [Reader’s Digest] was iconic of that age.
The digital age seems to be in love with trash and sleaze. Digital platforms that are breaking the banks are the purveyors of smut.” Scathing. Blunt. True? That’s for you to decide.
We can agree, then disagree, and maybe shift grounds; but whatever side of the debate you favour, all three very active members of the Uyo Book Club and seasoned gentlemen of the press have asked very important questions.

Reader's Digest
Reader’s Digest

Sonni Anyang’s take completely expanded the scope of the debate and laid bare pieces of information which not a few (the literati included, judging from the responses to his take) would find shocking and immediately question age-long opinions and stances. Here’s Mr. Anyang ‘s take: “I’ve been surprised, not to say shocked, that in bemoaning the death of Reader’s Digest, comments by Nigerian intellectuals have generally failed to mention how controversial the publication and some of its activities were.
The CNN piece, the link to which I’ve provided above ( Rise and Fall of Reader’s Digest )  , touches lightly on some of those controversies. Worse has been said about [Reader’s Digest] over the years it has been in publication.
The magazine claimed to be a digest of articles that had been printed elsewhere but it wasn’t very honest about it. The magazine was in the habit of commissioning articles to be written and paying for them to be published elsewhere. It would then publish such articles while pretending that there were ‘reprints’ it had distilled from the finest publications available. This was done to push and give credibility to a particular worldview. We can say that it was their right to so do. But why such underhand methods?
We mustn’t forget that [Reader’s Digest] flirted openly with fascism and came close to endorsing Nazism. It wasn’t just harmlessly right wing.

Many say it was a propaganda tool of the CIA. It certainly promoted a simple view of the world in which everything American and white was good and all else was bad. And because it was so widely circulated and targeted at the young and teachers ( schools) , the military and the average American who had not completed college education, it was central in shaping US public opinion for most of the 20th century.
Someone has said that [Reader’s Digest] declined in part because of the ‘low culture of the digital age’.
From the copies of the magazine I have read since my early teens but particularly since I came into critical consciousness in my late teens and reviews that I have seen over the last two decades, [Reader’s Digest] epitomized ‘low culture’ at its lowest. And that was before the digital age. In terms of intellectual quality, [Reader’s Digest] is not exactly high culture. It must be placed right down there with the ‘I Love Lucy’ dumbing down of TV soaps and similar outputs that appeal to the lowest common ‘intellectual/ cultural’ factor.
In lamenting the demise of [Reader’s Digest] UK, the least Nigerian intellectuals should do is remind themselves of what the magazine actually stood for.”

Fascism, unethical journalism, government-funded propagandist media arm, quasi-Nazism, and more. A lot of accusations with articles such as The Unexpurgated Story at Reader’s Digest  cited  to backup the claims. This revelation or reminder definitely changes the scope of this debate, enough to itself be the title of this article. Understandably, the elicited reactions to the revelation or reminder (the interchangeability dependent on who is reading) were understandably those of shock and regret of willingly feeding at the propaganda diner for donkey years while championing it as the best of served meals. Take Nsikak Essien’s response, for example: “It’s embarrassing the indoctrination I now discover I was subjected to.” And Udeme Nana’s submission: “This is quite revealing but this would take us to the postulation that no communication or specifically, writing / publication is value free. Most publications including books take ideological stances, the Holy Bible inclusive. This has led to arguments on the politics of the Nobel Prize in literature and explains why writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiongo have not won that honour. I loved reading [Reader’s Digest] and wasn’t conscious at all of its underlying political mission.”

Perhaps Sonni Anyang’s rejoinder to the reactions stemming from his expository revelation or reminder would be comforting if you are just as jolted by it as the members of the Uyo Book Club WhatsApp group were:
“No need to be ashamed. I continued reading [Reader’s Digest] whenever I had time to spare, mostly in waiting rooms or airport lounges and similar places even after knowing what it was all about. You could pick up the occasionally useful bit of information and would get a glimpse into the thinking of the American establishment on some issues or how they wanted the world to see the issues. Like watching CNN, when you are aware of where the editors and producers are coming from, you watch/read and filter as necessary.”

Iboro Otongaran thinks it wasn’t all gloomy in retrospect even. For him, it’s a given that, like any other publication, Reader’s Digest had a set narrative and that is to be expected. “The argument about a certain world view or the other is the province of every endeavour, publications inclusive. The argument was not really about ethics. It was more about quality, which you alluded to by referencing commissioned articles. No one commissions nincompoops to produce works for the propagation of their missions. Standout experts are usually those sought out for their contributions. This is the crux of my interest. Quality of writing!
That [Reader’s Digest] was pitched at the uneducated is debatable. Any true postmortem is bound to be a potpourri of the good and the bad. Nothing earthshaking about any ugly side of [ Reader’s Digest] coming out now.”

Nothing? Perhaps the driving narrative wasn’t and isn’t itself a problem but the labeling. Sonni Anyang thinks so:

“No writing is value free, yes. Nobody is advocating for value free writing. What we are saying is, reader beware! Surely, we of the intelligentsia should know when we are being fed a line of [hogwash]. If we elect to buy into it, let’s do so in full consciousness of our maligned choice.”
“It takes a very conscious effort not to buy into the language and therefore the mindset of your enslaver.
We are all victims. Problem is, most people don’t know they are being brainwashed; many pretend they are not and a few prefer to be house niggers.”

Accusatively fiery as it comes off as, did Reader’s Digest deliberately brainwash its most keen readers for donkey years? If it in fact was propaganda-fueled or prejudiced in favour of an unmalleable narrative, should it have put up a disclaimer similar to what cigarette packs have as a sign of its commitment to ethical journalism? Did failure to do so in light of the revelation now chip at its reputation? Do these revelations in themselves unearth unasked or unanswered questions about the credibility of (news) media organisations? Questions. More questions. And piled up answers waiting to be told or revealed.

For all of the arguments for and in favour of the ideals Reader’s Digest represented while its copies circulated the world, its consistency, endearingness, and far-reaching impact on the reading population haven’t been questioned. Maybe this is its legacy and is consolatory for its readers too.

Hopefully this piece chronicling the topical debate about journalism and ethics in the digital age, and leaning loyalties of media houses by distinguished members of the Uyo Book Club would expand the debate, add to the queue of questions, and provide answers to the unattended-to question: What do readers digest?

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