One Day Tom Brokaw Will Seem Like Walter Lippmann and Then I’ll Really Have Something to Complain About

by Scott McLemee on November 16, 2007

In the late 1990s, Doug McLennan created Arts Journal, a comprehensive aggregator of cultural journalism; for the past couple of years has been in charge of whatever is going on with the National Arts Journalism Program, which gave out fellowships at Columbia University for a while. (Until, one day, it didn’t. I’m not really sure what happened there.) He’s had a blog at AJ, Diacritical, that has been pretty episodic, goings weeks and longer without new activity. Totally understandable, of course; the man has enough else to do.

But it looks like he’s resuming it, starting with some considerations on how badly the notion of the newspaper as part of “mass culture” serves us, especially now:

Newspapers have not traditionally been mass market. In fact they were the classic niche subsidy model. The genius of newspapers was that they aggregated lots of mini-content – comics, bridge columns, stock tables, crossword puzzles, the arts, business, sports – and built enough of a combined audience to subsidize the content that otherwise would not have paid for itself…..

Yet somewhere along the way, this idea of niche aggregation slipped away from the local paper and was replaced by the sense that every story ought to be comprehensible by every reader. The problem: in a culture that increasingly offers more and more choice and allows people to get more precisely what they want, when they want, and how they want it, a generalized product that doesn’t specifically satisfy anyone finds its audience erode away. The more general, the more broad, the more “mass culture” a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.

This point seems perfectly obvious—until you stop to ask why, if it’s so obvious, the point is so obviously being missed.

Instead, the anxious effort to “draw younger eyes” tends to follow only too well-established patterns, which McLennan sums up as “Britney Spears on the cover, pandering to pop culture trends, sensationalist news stories that offer more heat than light.” All of which can be handled better (if “better” is the word for it) by other media.

He indicates that the next item at the blog will discuss just how big the audience for celebrity effluvia really is. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that builds up a steady following, a public. I take it that his intention is to try to argue against the dumbing-down trend on more or less rational grounds.

The effort is admirable, but probably mistaken—premised on much too generous a sense of how decisions are made. It’s not that the people in charge are adapting themselves to a “media surround” that is otherwise foreign to them. On the contrary. They are in it, and of it, more and more all the time. Print journalism is not the “first draft of history” but now, rather, the first draft of CNN. And everybody seems pretty much okay with that.

Long ago, the badness of the writing in Time magazine was so distinctive that people referred to “Timestyle.” (Dwight Macdonald did a parody of it, and ended up being hired by Henry Luce. Tough luck, that.) But it was something that evolved in a closed-off cultural institution answerable only to its own rules—a publication that revelled in its power to define what counted as news. It was crappy, yes, but it was an inner-directed crappiness.

Today the crappiness of Time is other-directed. A good example, from the current issue, is the “interview” based on questions sent in by readers. Its subject is Tom Brokaw, who is famous for … uh, reading stuff on NBC Nightly News? A celebrity, anyway. Someone well known for being well known.

Such crud is the product of a sensibility for which TV itself is the cultural dominant. The day when Walter Lippmann could call newspapers the equivalent of a book—among the most important books published in a democracy, he said, because it was the only one most citizens read, let alone read daily—is probably over, because his point wouldn’t be understood by the people who edit and publish them.

{ 12 comments }

1

Stuart 11.16.07 at 1:32 am

He indicates that the next item at the blog will discuss just how big the audience for celebrity effluvia really is. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that builds up a steady following, a public.

Aren’t the Ok! and Hello! type magazines among the biggest sellers in the UK (mostly just behind the TV guides, most of which also contain large parts celebrity gossip type content).

2

John Emerson 11.16.07 at 2:13 am

I’ve noticed that people like Dana Milbank from Newsweek and the Washington Post (MSNBC’s fraternal organizations) seem significantly less shitty than usual when they’re on Olbermann. (Not good, but less shitty.) This is evidence that TV is the straw that stirs the drink, and that all those lame motherfuckers would probably be willing to be OK journalists, or even good journalists, if TV wanted them to be.

Also, if you don’t like Olbermann, shame on you.

3

Rich B. 11.16.07 at 4:37 am

The more general, the more broad, the more “mass culture” a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.

This point seems perfectly obvious—until you stop to ask why, if it’s so obvious, the point is so obviously being missed.

Isn’t the answer (to why it is being missed) quite obviously “USA Today”?

4

acb 11.16.07 at 6:07 am

Newspapers, even in the States, are devices for delivering readers to advertisers. So long as you analyse them as devices from bringing words to readers they will make no sense. Newspapers which want mass advertising must present it in a context familiar to the consumers of mass advertising, which means something like television. It’s perfectly possible to have a grown-up newspaper. You just pitch it at people who can afford luxury goods and who must make decisions that matter. Then you call it the Financial Times. But, otherwise, people won’t pay a premium for truth and good judgement because these things neither profit nor entertain them.

5

Dan Goodman 11.16.07 at 7:42 am

‘Isn’t the answer (to why it is being missed) quite obviously “USA Today”?’

My view: In most newspapers, the stories divide into those in which I see mistakes, and the ones whose subjects I don’t know enough about to spot the mistakes. Sometimes it’s very easy; I think it was in the late 1980s that the New York Times ran an article on how New York City’s dialect was dying out, but every expert the article quoted said quite plainly that it was changing — not that it was dying.

But I can usually depend on USA Today to get it right.

6

Ben Alpers 11.16.07 at 8:38 am

Tom Brokaw, who is famous for … uh, reading stuff on NBC Nightly News?

Brokaw also wrote an incredibly popular hagiography (hagioprosopography?) of U.S. Americans in the Second World War.

I’m not sure that’s cause for celebration, but his fame is not based simply on reading the news.

7

Doug 11.16.07 at 4:55 pm

“Backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind…”

8

gmoke 11.16.07 at 6:05 pm

The current punditocracy is the culmination of the explicit elitism of Walter Lippmann.

9

Henry (not the famous one) 11.16.07 at 9:21 pm

Gratuitous Myles na gCopaleen citation: when describing the sufferings of someone who was used to reading the paper as part of his morning ritual, he referred to his employer, The Irish Times, as “that gray tablet of lies.” Always seemed appropriate; might not apply as well to USA Today.

10

spot1019 11.16.07 at 11:04 pm

The great irony here is that the blogs at ArtsJournal are populated exclusively by print journalists, some of whom (music critic Norman Lebrecht) have been publicly very critical of bloggers without a print background. (Here’s On an Overgrown Path‘s

11

vivian 11.17.07 at 1:59 am

A brilliant, professor and former newsman/editor said back in the 1980’s that the problem was increasingly “too many journalism school graduates, and not enough reporters.” He also forecast the too-many-B-school-grads problem, but so did lots of people, even then. Edwin Diamond, the world is a poorer place without you.

12

abb1 11.18.07 at 2:41 pm

It’s not elitism, it’s much simpler than that. It’s just like this:

You see, we’re going to put you on Easy Street.
Promote you to Major. Give you another medal.
Send you home a hero. You’ll have parades in your honor.
You can make speeches, raise money for war bonds.

All you have to do is be our pal.
Say nice things about us.

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