A few weeks ago, there was the annual White House Correspondents dinner, once an exclusive gathering of some of the most influential and powerful members of the media class and their political friends, but more and more a promotional affair for celebrities and upstart media organizations. The dinner has gotten so not Washington press corps, so not our class, that this year, the New York Times stuffily declined to buy a table.
The next week, everybody rushed over to the party for Kurt Andersen’s new book, Turn of the Century, a Naked and the Dead-size novel about the media business (is this the first novel about the media business?). If there is a media class, Andersen, co-founder of Spy, a former editor of this magazine, a current New Yorker writer, and for twenty years a bon vivant among less subtle movers and groovers (I know Kurt, too, and he’s blurbed one of my books), is certainly a member. As many as every third person at the party occupied a measurable position in the pecking order of the city’s magazines, newspapers, and networks (i.e., old media) – many have cameo roles in Andersen’s book, and some are major characters. It was the kind of party – or really, it is the myth of such a party – that brings young, ambitious wannabe media types to New York (later, of course, you learn to avoid such parties, which is a class affect as well). It was also the kind of party and a gathering of a kind of clan that may not be terribly relevant to terribly much anymore.
At least, that is the suggestion of Andersen’s book, which is about the media world breaking apart, and about the media losing control of the media business. Andersen, the coolest (in both senses of the word) of ironists, has painted a picture that is arguably much more about the twilight than about the turn of the century, a fading-out of something rather than a roaring new beginning. More nostalgic in its way than futurist.
Later in the week, as I made my way through Andersen’s 659-page vision (with as many in-jokes) of a converging world of media, technology, and finance, I went to an even more exclusive gathering of this very likely doomed media aristocracy.
It was at the bake sale (or its equivalent) at one of the schools where we aristocrats send our children. Parents and generous givers gathered to listen to a panel discussion about the future of the media. It was an event that would have been happily at home in Andersen’s depiction of New York media culture, or, for that matter, at home in Tom Wolfe’s depiction of New York investment-banking culture – most of the parents and nearly all of the generous givers at these schools are investment bankers, after all. (Also, many investment bankers have become media owners.) These events typically call on the talents and time of the various parents in the school. This catch-as-catch-can approach produced for the panel Jann Wenner, of Rolling Stone; Steve Brill, of Brill’s Content (the last issue of which Andersen describes in his book); Cathie Black, the president of Hearst Magazines; and Anna Wintour, of Vogue (who, exiting early, left her sunglasses on the stage). Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist and television opinionist (who has nephews at the school), moderated the panel. This was as good a group as any, I thought, with which to weigh the haplessness, the country-club stodginess (the they-just-don’t-get-it-ness), of the old media against the shock of the new.
There were two issues for the evening: the media’s responsibility to the community and the future of print in the electronic world – “mission critical” issues, as they say in the technology biz (a term of art that Andersen fondly and mockingly adopts in his book).
Alter, who in his Newsweek column and television appearances has assumed the grandeur (and become a self-parody) of the public moralist – the last of a long line of would-be Walter Lippmans – challenged Wenner (“I want to turn the conversation to the buzz word media responsibility“), who, ever the bad boy, arrived late, about his support of gangsta rap (news to rappers, I’m sure). Wenner defended the rappers’ oeuvre as akin to Bob Dylan and protest music. “But Dylan,” sputtered Alter, “was against violence.” With regard to the social responsibility of fashion magazines, Wintour, like some silent-film star who suddenly, horrifyingly, speaks, said that Vogue was definitely not trying to encourage anorexia – although she herself saw obesity as the much bigger problem. Brill, in dapper-don Mafia attire, both threatening and elegant, said he was not afraid to admit when he was wrong – and others shouldn’t, either, or else! (“Because,” he said, “life is about making decisions and choices!”) Black, dressed in black and cleverly balancing an aqua sweater over her shoulders, largely opted out of this discussion because she didn’t, she said, always read the magazines she publishes.
It wasn’t just the panel’s vapidity and aura of self-satisfaction that seemed noteworthy and worrisome but the more general lack of oomph. Nobody seemed to appreciate that it had become a crazy dog-eat-media world out there – that magazines, for instance, were surely among the most troubled of media-business propositions. “Great magazines come from the gut, not from focus groups,” said Alter, reaffirming his belief in something.
As for the Internet, and the future of publishing in a technologically transformed age, there was a certain manic intensity to the discussion. But the tone was cockeyed, the word choice odd, the rhythms off (a problem Andersen occasionally has with his version of high-tech talk). After a while, I started to think of that tin-ear sound of television and news magazines when they tried to get with the sixties. Joe Friday explaining marijuana to his partner, Bill Gannon, on Dragnet circa 1968. A suddenly groovy Frank Sinatra. The Mod Squad. Wenner, for instance, botching the explanation, tried to explain the difference between a T1 line and a cable modem to Brill, who kept insisting that he knew the difference. Wintour said she didn’t think the Internet could properly display a fashion layout. Although, with sudden expertise, she said in maybe two years it would (and then?). While the desire was obviously to be with-it, clearly the more pressing issue was how to embrace the future without exactly having to learn the stuff.
Perhaps most interesting was the reaction of the many investment bankers in the audience (a great number of whom are mentioned by name at one point or another in the Andersen novel). These bankers, who to a man are investing heavily in the new economy and culture of converging media and technology, seemed startled, offended – pissed off, even – that these media celebrities seemed unable to talk the talk, much less walk the walk.
In Andersen’s book, the hero, George Mactier, a former journalist who lost his hand covering the war in Nicaragua, is, at 44 (Andersen’s present age), now the producer of a “reality” news show where actors play newscasters (or, at least, I think this is the premise of the show). He is married to Lizzie Zimbalist, CEO of a Silicon Alley software company that is in acquisition talks with Microsoft and developing “a groundbreaking multiplatform game that for the first time in gaming history straddles and synthesizes four major genres – role playing, action, strategy, and journey/enlightenment.” (In real life, Andersen is married to Anne Kreamer, an independent TV producer and former Nickelodeon executive.)
Andersen’s hero represents both an older set of values (“You’ve spent time in journalism,” another character says to George. “You used to do some very decent nonfiction work, as I recall”) and a new kind of sensibility, even epiphany, about the role of the media (he is reminded, for instance, “of how deeply uninteresting he finds most TV news, especially the bleating about politics”). George Mactier has managed to set aside one bias – old-media conceits about journalistic standards and practices – and replace it with an ironic, clear-eyed sense that the world is changing. For this ability to adapt to a new world, he is paid $16,575 a week (repeated mantralike).
One of the few false notes in the book – surrounded by Andersen’s mesmerizing business buzz, it’s hard to hear the false notes – is that such a character could so handily make the transition from old media to new, from sensibility A to sensibility B. Andersen, I suspect, is just temperamentally unable to make his hero a failure.
The real George Mactier, on the other hand, would be a Time Inc. senior editor, or a network news producer, or a Times reporter only now beginning to wake up to the sinking sensation that the career and business and social status to which he aspired is disappearing as fast as independent bookstores (or newspapers or the network-television audience). Certainly the subtext of Andersen’s book is that we of the media class – even if he allows his alter ego a better fate – are cooked.
Andersen is widely regarded as a Zeitgeist guy – Spy was as eighties as the eighties gets. He’s undoubtedly rushed his big book onto the shelves because he knows this is the crack-up year for the network-newspaper-magazine-centric media world – a frenzied period of identity crisis and absurdity as it tries to figure out how to save itself.
Wenner, with a particular “What, me worry?” cluelessness, is telling people he is going to start a magazine about the Internet; Brill, too, the rumor mill says, is preparing to announce a major new Internet initiative in the hope of saving his old-media skin – e-commerce, even! (Watch out, Amazon.) What media company isn’t suddenly thinking, Oh, shit?
The week of Andersen’s party, his friend James Cramer, the hedge-fund manager, financial columnist, and model for the character Ben Gould in the novel, took his Internet site, TheStreet.com, public in an offering that valued the enterprise at $1.6 billion. Its editor, Dave Kansas (an editor!), walked away with stock valued at nearly $10 million. The kinds of tremors of anxiety and resentment and transformation produced by such gushers of cash – “liquidity events,” in investment-banking terminology – are only beginning to be acknowledged in our world.
Andersen, with his book – with both its tone and its timing – may have turned himself into the Evelyn Waugh of the media class. Andersen – from Omaha but nevertheless with a charming Waughian upper-class world-weariness – is a member of a fearsome Harvard generation that came to New York post-Watergate and claimed great influence in the media world. The attraction, undoubtedly, was as much to the class part as it was to the media part. What was once compelling about the media world was that there was a center of power and there were people who controlled it; there were clear categories of opinion and people who delivered them; there were the networks, the news magazines, the Times, a few other magazines of wit and style, and the people who worked for them; and there was Manhattan and there was the rest of the world.