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Bad News for the Media Elite


We've all gained a lifetime of savviness about how the media works, about how we get information -- the process of getting it, how much we get, what kind we get -- and about who is giving it to us. And yet, in the face of this deluge, Sam Donaldson ("If the charges are true, he's finished") stands pat. By his tone, stance, manner, hair, he continues to maintain: I impart the message (indeed, I am the message).

At the same time, part of the frustration of the national news media -- a frustration that in and of itself does nothing to endear it to its audience -- is that the message it sends does not seem to register. This is a relatively novel situation. The press says the most straightforward and damaging things to a network-size audience, but there is no fluctuation in the nation's opinion. The press doesn't even seem to be able to create doubt. The audience is imperturbable.

The press has treated this as a moral issue -- a.k.a. the death of outrage -- instead of understanding it as an information issue: Obviously there are countervailing messages making a stronger impact. It is, however, not necessarily clear that the national news media knows that its audience has other sources. It certainly is hard to imagine these million-dollar correspondents and anchor guys -- few of them getting any younger, you'll notice -- down in their finished basements channel-surfing, checking e-mail, personalizing bots, browsing porno sites, instant-messaging, downloading audio plug-ins.

It's not improbable that Sam Donaldson has no idea what has happened: That choice has exploded -- and with that the fundamental premise of network news, that it represents America in its entirety, has shattered. That the nature of information itself has changed -- specialized information, the sophisticated or the professional or the foreign or the weird and kinky and conspiratorial, is pretty much as easy to come by as the homogenized stuff. And, perhaps most profound, the point of view has shifted. Most of the opinions we receive every day are not from the professional opinion class but from the cacophony of e-mailers, posters, radio call-inners, whomever.

And -- something else of no little consequence -- whom, at this point, does Sam Donaldson work for, anyway? Everybody knows these news organizations have been bought, their allegiances altered, their agendas changed. The Tiffany Network was acquired by a real-estate-and-tobacco company, then by a defense contractor, which was in turn acquired by a radio-station owner who got rich off Howard Stern ("I own CBS," Stern says); CNN was acquired by Time Warner, NBC by GE, ABC by Disney, not to mention that everyone's hometown newspaper has been bought and made part of a chain. And we're supposed to pretend that everything is the same, that this turnover has no effect? What do these people takes us for?

This is, finally, how an elite loses its position. The members of the elite just start to seem like dinosaurs. Life happens in exciting, interesting, novel ways, but they aren't part of it. They live some past life, or live in memories of some past life. The American people, riding economic and social forces, go one way -- demonstrating an uncanny ability to get hip in an instant -- while the upholders of conventional thinking are, necessarily, left behind.


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