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Premodern America

As Dan Rather’s old-media world fades out, the future is beginning to look weirdly like the past. Welcome to the neo–nineteenth century.

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It seems like only yesterday, as geezers always say. I remember turning on the CBS Evening News, 24 years ago this week, to watch Walter Cronkite’s last appearance as anchor—although anchorman was the job title then. It was a Friday, so I was in my office in the national-affairs pod at Time, closing a story at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first six weeks in the White House. It had been years since Time was the Fox News of its day, Henry Luce’s single-minded editorializing long since purged from its nervous system, but the magazine was still living down its vestigial reputation as the Republican newsweekly. Until a few minutes before Cronkite said “And that’s the way it is” for the last time, I was listening to a Talking Heads tape (the first CDs appeared two years later), reading a teletyped dispatch from one of the news bureaus, and typing my reply on a Selectric. (The IBM PC, with .016 megabytes of memory, was still six months away.) I sipped a glass of wine; it was cocktail time, the booze supplied by the company. Since Time Inc. owned a cable company, the office TVs got all twenty channels, so it was possible to watch the nine-month-old Cable News Network, but I don’t think we ever did. TV news meant network news.

It really does seem like yesterday, although the picture looks downright sepia-toned, so unbelievably last-century. In other words, 1981 was the very cusp, that portentous moment just as the century started to end and everything changed. When Dan Rather got the job, 70 percent of TV viewers watched the nightly news; the audience has since shrunk by almost half. As he takes his valedictory moment, he really does stand as a relic of an earlier era—a grander, less democratic, more Democratic age. For members of the MSM (blogospherese for “mainstream media”), he is a little like Emperor Franz Josef or Czar Nicholas II as their empires were imploding. And to extend that trope, I suppose the discombobulating events of a century ago—World War I, the Russian Revolution, radio, cinema—have their present-day media equivalents in the recent debacles at the Times, CBS, and CNN, the new-technology-enabled rise of ideological media like Fox News, the proliferation of blogs.

History does unfold dialectically, with each era containing the seeds of its own eventual destruction. Media history is no different. The (left) intelligentsia’s embrace of relativism in its various anti-Establishment flavors during the sixties and seventies had the effect of softening the ground for a time when energetic, maverick individuals—that is, bloggers—would be granted a status equal (or superior) to their institutional counterparts; weirdly, there is a line of descent from Jacques Derrida to the right-wing White House correspondent and gay-porn-Website impresario Jeff Gannon. As Newsweek’s Howard Fineman noted in his startlingly clear-eyed recent elegy for the liberal media Establishment, it was that Establishment’s undisguised liberalism (promoting civil rights and feminism and environmentalism, opposing the Vietnam War, despising Nixon) that started undermining the noble modern dream of impartial news. It has taken the right another quarter-century to accomplish its more self-conscious version of the trick, dressing up ideology in the drag of objectivity, as with Fox News’ Big Lies—We report, you decide and Fair and balanced.

So the 21st century started replacing the twentieth in 1981, and that lap dissolve, as filmmakers call it, is finishing up just about now. Of course, historical twilights can linger for a long time. More than half the people who watch the network newscasts are 60 or older, but there are 30 million viewers in all, about ten times as many as watch the cable news shows combined. Around 20 million Americans still read a weekly newsmagazine. And the New York Times, of course, remains the New York Times, the presiding hegemon. (The newspaper, that is. The company’s recent $410 million acquisition of About.com probably made irresistible ad-sales sense, but I find it staggering—proof on the downside of the twentieth century’s end—that the New York fucking Times is attaching its imprimatur to a third-rate online almanac written by a herd of 500 amateurs.)

Bloggers badly want to believe their time has come. CNN made its reputation by covering the Gulf War, and I am sure someone has declared that the bloggers’ recent career-wrecking achievements—discrediting CBS News’ National Guard documents, forcing CNN to oust Eason Jordan, outing the weirdo Gannon—amount to their new new-media equivalent of Operation Desert Storm.

But just as CNN was never really able to reinvent itself to be indispensable for anything except covering wars and tsunamis, one can imagine the blogs settling in forever at their present level of almost wholly media-on-media impact. For now, bloggers are a second-tier journalistic species. They are remoras. The Times and CNN and CBS News are the whales and sharks to which Instapundit, Kausfiles, and Kos attach themselves for their free rides. (Remoras evolved special sucking disks; bloggers have modems.) If the sharks and whales were to go extinct, what would the blogging remoras do? Evolve into actual reporters? Let a hundred I. F. Stones bloom.


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