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(Crossposted on Punk Ass Blog. I wish I could unify comments sections. Ah, well. Wordpress 2.6 or something.)
Yesterday’s Talk of the Nation had Roger Mudd and Bob Schaffer, both former reporters at the CBS news bureau, reminiscing about their days working at that company. The discussion turned pretty quickly to how the the world is changing, how television newscasts are aimed more and more transparently at entertainment over information, and how Americans are more concerned with American Idol than with Real Issues.
And this matters, right? I’m about to dismiss it pretty completely, but let’s just appreciate for a moment that the corporate monoculture sold by the big networks, studios, and labels is still massively influential as to what and how people in the west think. Simon Cowell can say a sentence—basically any sentence—and more Americans will immediately believe him than know who Hosni Mubarak is. That’s relevant. And more subtly, too: Randall Munroe focused on top-20 Hollywood movies in his recent look at the portrayal of women heroes (summary: whowhat kind of heroes now? how silly), and his reason for doing so was that in a very real way, these images are our culture. There are many reasons to critique it, and many, many critiques to be had.
But still, when Bob Schaffer gets up on Talk of the Nation and says, “Thirty years ago, the combined audience of the three network newscasts was fifty-two million. Today, it is twenty-seven million. Today, American Idol has an audience of twenty-seven million,” truly, I struggle to care.
Here’s Schaffer on the lingering death of newspapers:
The problem for newspapers these days is not so much the journalism. It’s finding the sources of revenue to be able to pay for these very expensive enterprises. We talk about bloggers going to take the place of newspapers, and all of that… Bill Keller, who’s the editor of the New York Times, tells me that they spend two and a half million dollars a year just on the security that they have to have to keep their bureau in Baghdad open.
The meaning, obviously, is that bloggers could never mount an enterprise of that magnitude. Implied: if the great makers of our culture do not do this thing, then obviously it will not be done, and we will live in a dark age where we know of nothing beyond the tips of our noses.
The response to that is that we just don’t know if we can trust these random people on the Internet. They are, after all, posting their personal experiences and critiques, with their own sets of biases and assumptions, and wow, that could mean that our biases and assumptions won’t be reflected! When Walter Cronkite tells you something, you know that it’s safe for good Americans to believe it. But everyone else, why, they could say just anything.
That is the great problem for journalists, now. How do we deal with this constant bombardment of information, that not only are our viewers and listeners and readers getting, but that we are getting as well? —Roger Mudd
A friend of mine recently observed that whenever people talk about the Internet in other media, the results are… never quite right. It doesn’t matter how conversant the writer or speaker actually is in technology and net culture, there’s always this undertone of trying to explain to your grandparents just what the Google is really all about. There’s an element of that here—an ignorance of soft security and soft verifiability, an ignorance of the kinds of navigational skills that drawing from this big ocean of primary sources both requires and stimulates.
But more, there’s a fundamental sense of fear. Having grown up in an environment where you built your identity on the trusted words of a few white men, it must be terrifying to look at the enormous, overflowing wealth of voices that can now be heard and realize that people are listening. Not that many, not yet, but they are listening to them and not you. It is in a very real way the downfall of western civilization. It’s not a violent revolution so much as simply the collapse of that particular institution that distills the world into a pleasant hour to be taken in at the end of the day. It’s the slow degradation of our ability to say the world is like this and have it simply be true.
And I, for one, welcome the barbarian hordes.