Friday, March 11, 2011

The Little Tent

Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism draws attention to an essay by James Fallows in the Atlantic on why we should come to Love the New Media. As the headline deck puts it: "There isn't any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media -- and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future."

(As a copy editor, always gotta love that phrasing "may also be." When I used to do headline seminars for Knight Ridder, one of my targets was any headline with "may" in it. It might be the best you could do, but that headline by definition could also be written as: "Or it may not." "Dow may hit 34,000, or it may not." If it stands for "largely unsupported speculation -- by respected and knowledgeable sources, however -- on a subject everyone's interested in," what can you do? It's the story you were given. If it simply indicates "story has no point," then you've got a bigger problem.)

OK, this is the same James Fallows who famously preached that Japan was going to overtake America, although with enough ahems, caveats, and shuffles that he could also fairly say, no, I merely presented this as a possible outcome. It is his style to do lots of reporting in seemingly foreign parts, then find a conclusion that's way out in front of everyone else, because -- well, most of us in journalism know who James Fallows is, right? You don't get attention by totally reasoned responses, as Barack Obama continues to refuse to learn. Fallows notes that 15 years ago, a book he wrote said "scandal, spectacle, and the 'game' of politics was driving citizens away from public affairs, making it harder for even the least cynical politicians to do an effective job, and at the same time steadily eroding our public ability to assess what is happening and decide how to respond." He now says that's still true, but what's the point of fighting it? The new media have won.

This is basically an overheated article about Gawker, and in justifying its approach, he says this, which of course is true: "Giving people what they want as opposed to what they should want is a conflict as old as journalism, certainly as it has been practiced in this country. My capsule history of journalism is that for more than a century after the Civil War, American readers and viewers were in various ways buffered from getting exactly what they wanted from newspapers and, later, radio and TV news shows. News, like education, aspired to be as interesting as possible but to have an uplifting civic intent." (Like all of culture. Read the book "The Judgment of Paris" to see the battle between the Academie des Beaux-Arts and the impressionists on this very point.) And then he shows how we in journalism have tried to have an uneasy balance of both: Drawing an audience with bells and whistles, but not so many bells and whistles that they would damage our self-proclaimed status as rational men and women above trying to attract people with bells and whistles. And all of this is true as well.

Then, in the "Japan will overtake us" manner of reaching a fixed outcome from a current trend, he writes: "Of course, there will for a long time be a range of publications, all of them subject to the new market pressures but each having its own conception of its culture and the 'brand,' the reputation and audience it can deliver to advertisers. But existing American media operations must become slightly if steadily more like the Gawkers of the business — we’re doing it right here, at the magazine Ralph Waldo Emerson and company founded before the Civil War — and new operations will grow up knowing no other environment."

For journalists and their self-conceits, however, the next part of the essay is very useful -- reminding us that Henry Luce and Brit Haddon were once seen as Gawker, and that our culture is still in thrall to something that ought to have a name -- the Richie Cunningham fallacy, perhaps? -- the idea that 1950s America should be normative rather than an outlier. He finally draws some conclusions, which are well worth reading. But I think one cannot go unchallenged, and not just because it quotes, inevitably, Jeff Jarvis:

"American life is becoming more polarized, and this is a phenomenon bigger than whatever is happening in the media. But the separate spheres of political discussion — Hannity for some people, Maddow for others — may be less of an emergency than is often assumed. 'Government is not life,' Jeff Jarvis, a Time Inc. veteran and the founder of Entertainment Weekly, who now teaches journalism at the City University of New York, told me. 'The fact that people want to ignore it is okay.' In this view, the political class, fascinated by the process of campaigning and strategizing, dominates the media, imposes its obsession on the public at large, and worries when citizens don’t share its passion.

“'The people who are mainly interested in politics are crazy in a way,” Denton (of Gawker) told me. 'Maybe I’d rather reach people whose first passion is video games, or fashion, or are retirees or young professional women. Their interest in politics is the normal interest in politics, not as the main source of rage and resentment in their lives or to the exclusion of everything else.' The targeting of such communities, ever easier with social media, is not an answer to America’s polarization. But it does suggest the possibility of new, complex connections that offset a stark right/left divide."

It does if you are determined to make lemonade. It may portend the death of the two-party system, which may or may not be a bad thing, genuflections toward the late David Broder, that towering believer in compromise and the middle who died this week, aside. But politics is not simply the same as a mall, where if the department stores are gone, an ever-larger group of big boxes and boutiques can supply the customers' needs, possibly more efficiently than when the Big Store was trying to satisfy all.

I'm not a religious person, but I occasionally play around with, what if I were to go back? Sure would be nice sometimes to be able to say, "I'm letting Him take charge of that one." But churches today don't seem to be the religious department stores they were in the Richie Cunningham fallacy era -- come in, take a pew, listen to music and words, put some money in the till, go and serve the Lord, see you next Sunday. It is an increasing expectation that you are joining a like-minded community -- not the imposing Gothic building near your house -- and will participate in Stephen ministries and feeding the hungry and marriage retreats, if not Wednesday night basketball games. If you're not interested in that -- well, there's no cultural requirement in America any longer that one be a member of a church. (One still has to believe in God to be fully accepted, but one can simply cite "faith" as one's method of worship.) So the churches become more about, and oriented to, those who really believe.

Everything's optional in life now -- except politics. Politics is still a single-class tournament like Indiana high school basketball used to be -- everyone's got a chance, and everyone's in the end watching. If politics becomes simply a video game or NFL for its obsessives, it will fall into the hands of those who look to it for "rage and resentment." For, as we're all learning, what the new media are about is emotional connection. Perhaps, as Fallows hopes, the answer to Fox News is The Daily Show -- and the answer to The Daily Show is Fox News -- and from this a better commonwealth will arise, one in which alternating stories based on some level of truthiness create opposed-yet-cooperating communities as the media used to feel existed in Congress.

Fallows thinks we have to believe this, because it's coming regardless and we should hope for the best. But when politics becomes simply another genre interest, such as fashion or football, we can forget that we can wear denim shirts and ignore all sports, but we can't not be citizens of our country. If we decide we aren't, those on the extremes will gladly make the decisions for us. One has to hope that American common sense will prevail as always -- but American common sense was always supported by prominent figures coughing, saying "harrumph," and, yes, writing articles sometimes vacuously saying "while facts are hard to come by, it appears more and more people may be...," all possibly full of holes but all existing to nudge people who Don't Care All That Much toward the middle road. Take those away, and it is a new-media world indeed.

No comments: