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Premodern America


What will take place, I think, is that blogging will be absorbed and then transmuted by larger media entities, something analogous to what happened to theatrical newsreels after their brief heyday in the thirties and forties, when they were subsumed by TV. But in the meantime, until bloggers can commit errors of the Mary Mapes or Eason Jordan kind and then suffer the consequences that Mapes and Jordan did, how seriously can we take the medium?

Now that we’re getting a little distance on the late twentieth century, its salient features are coming into clearer focus. And what seemed at the time like a set of irreversible, axiomatic facts are beginning to look like facets of an anomalous historical era, almost as different from what has followed as from what came before. If the postwar decades were a high-water mark, the water may be sinking back to its normal historical levels.

Take the idea of journalism that aspires to an impartial, empirical rigor transcending party and ideology. It took a hundred years—from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth—for this to become the governing credo of the American press. (And even then Luce wasn’t buying.) Like pretty much all successful new social paradigms, this one was driven by economics and technology as well as an idea. The enormous increase in the speed and capacity of printing presses made large daily-newspaper circulations possible. Radio and TV expanded those potential audiences for news by another order of magnitude. The economic incentive for impartiality followed—owners, in order to maximize the buyers for their journalism, enforced enough nonpartisanship to satisfy audiences across the ideological spectrum. And the ultimate outcome was the monopolistic, self-satisfied, big-daddy news media we began to call “the media.”

During the past two decades, the underpinnings of all that started to unravel. Once again, the old order is being overthrown by new technologies (cable TV, the Internet) that enable a profitable redefinition of journalism (Fox News, The Daily Show). Last time around, the new technology and business models squeezed overt partisanship and quirks of sensibility out of the news; this time, they are allowing them back in.

Journalism is reverting to a very old-school status quo, when most coverage was as partisan as today’s New York Post’s. In the middle of the nineteenth century, New York City had a population of 500,000 but more than a dozen daily papers and countless weeklies, most of them small-scale, idiosyncratic reflections of their editors and owners, chockablock with summaries of stories nicked from other publications—in other words, very bloglike. Back then, too, papers and magazines depended overwhelmingly on revenue from selling copies to readers, not from ads. The advertising tail did not yet wag the media dog. These days, as I gleefully strip away more and more advertising from my life—by means of HBO, a digital video recorder, and satellite radio—state-of-the-art early-21st-century media thus begins to look still more mid-nineteenth.

The configuration and mind-set of the mainstream media in the last half of the last century aren’t the only givens in our recent past that now appear somewhat historically anomalous. Everywhere I look, the nineteenth century is creeping back. The swinging mix-and-match cultural hodgepodge of the past 25 years, marked by the blurring and erasure of easy distinctions between high culture and pop, is called postmodern, but in fact it’s a very premodern circumstance, more 1850 (when a single night at the theater might encompass Shakespeare and vaudeville) than 1950. Or consider Bush’s dream of an even less regulated, more privatized, lower-tax, looser-social-safety-net “Ownership Society,” which really does seem more late-nineteenth-century than late-twentieth. His foreign policy doesn’t use the phrases “Manifest Destiny” or “civilizing imperialism,” but might as well. And the atavistic Christianity of his political base is literally a throwback to the 1800s, if not earlier.

Once again, I remind my younger readers: Not so long ago, things were very different. When I was in school—public school in Nebraska, no less—evolution was not controversial or a “theory.” Darwin versus Genesis was no more a debate than round Earth versus flat Earth. In the sixties and seventies, the 1925 Scopes trial—what a historian had prematurely called “nineteenth-century America’s last stand”—seemed almost comically ancient, like the Salem witch trials. Biblical literalism was in the dustbin of history.

Back when an ostensibly conservative Republican president—Richard Nixon—imposed wage and price controls and created the federal environmental regulatory bureaucracy, a kind of Eurosocialist America appeared plausible if not inevitable. Amending the Social Security system was literally unimaginable. Everyone took the United Nations seriously. No one seriously promoted sexual abstinence. And so on.

The thing is, back then—back when we had a professional hockey season every winter, without fail—each of these big fat conventional wisdoms seemed unassailable. That’s the way it was. And at the zenith of any prevailing paradigm, I suppose, always the way it is.


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