Premodern America

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 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.

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.

Premodern America