“All this shit is gone ineradicably,” said my friend Rory O’Connor over lunch the other day. He was speaking about business news – the market-is-everything kind of business news that became the cash cow of journalism during the prewar go-go years. But more generally, he meant that the whole non-news news slant was finished. News as a product, or by-product, of media organizations, as pure P&L, ratings-driven programming, was over. Old-fashioned news values – reflecting a kind of seriousness not seen in a generation – were coming back.
He added, with satisfaction, “Roger must be jumping out of his skin.” By which he meant Roger Ailes. Ailes’s Fox News, which up until September 11 had been redefining news as inexpensive-to-produce over-the-top opinion and diatribe, is in ratings free fall. “Every bubble has burst,” Rory said grandly, meaning not just the stock market but all contemporary commercial assumptions.
Rory runs a 30-person news company called Globalvision – a left-wing-ish enterprise that focuses on international news (wars, famines, refugees, repression, corruption, genocide, political collapse, etc.). It’s a fourteen-year-old mini mini-empire whose quixotic entrepreneurialism includes an independent television-production company focused on “international journalism.” It includes a worldwide media-watchdog Website (a not-for-profit “org” site). And it has just launched a foreign-press news service, providing a daily feed of more than 100 foreign news sources – from the Balochistan Post in Pakistan to the Addis Tribune in Ethiopia to Pari Daily in Bulgaria – to news outlets in the U.S. and around the world. You could hardly have designed, pre-September 11, a less promising media concept.
As it turns out, Rory was right and everybody else in the media was wrong: International news, cast aside by almost every media outlet, at best a nostalgist’s beat, is a life-and-death issue. Big media had clearly gotten its priorities wrong, so it was time to look at marginal media – the Cassandra-ish part of the news business where earnest people ply their trade year in and year out, with nobody listening until disaster strikes.
Globalvision’s left-wing-ness is instructive, too, foreshadowing the irony-free media’s new high seriousness: comparative political systems, international grievances, gravitas of all sorts.
Foreigners always ask why the American media doesn’t have a greater interest in other countries. It’s hard to give a polite answer. The impolite answer is that America is the big story.
Rory’s been there (and may even benefit from being there – what might an equity interest in the sorry state of the world be worth?).
I first got to talking to Rory when, in late 1999, he tried to convince me that the MediaChannel (MediaChannel.org), his weighty Website devoted to covering international media, deserved some of the attention that Inside.com, the self-absorbed media site about media, was getting during the long and fulsome publicity campaign that accompanied its launch. (Inside’s founders – Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn – having spent their capital, relinquished the company this past spring.)
“Inside isn’t going to tell you one thing you don’t know already. That’s why it exists – to make you feel good about knowing what you already know,” he said, not inaccurately. “All right, it’s Kurt Andersen, and I’m no Kurt Andersen. I understand that, but the MediaChannel should be able to get a little tag onto the Inside story. Like there’s also the MediaChannel. Just a paragraph,” went his pitch.
This was not at all unpersuasive – it just wasn’t, as I tried to explain to him at the time, realistic. There was the Inside.com notion about the media, where we were all insiders sharing a certain knowingness in an intimate world, and then Rory’s MediaChannel vision, in which we were outsiders scrounging for crumbs of information in a hostile world – these were opposite rather than complementary views.
As the zeitgeist turns and hundreds of reporters who have never traveled except on vacation head for Islamabad (NBC’s diet-and-wellness reporter, Dr. Bob Arnot, was one of the first on the scene), Globalvision, in its grungy but suddenly very busy Times Square offices, takes on a definite un-nineties, non-ironic, unprepossessing kind of charm.
Rory is a circa-the-seventies former reporter for the Boston alternatives The Real Paper and The Phoenix (Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal was at the next desk writing a Phoenix column called “Guns and Butter”) who, in the late eighties, quit CBS’s 48 Hours when he was asked to produce a show about the fat crisis in America, and whose professional high point is the three years during which Globalvision produced and distributed (“to public-television stations, which is different than PBS, which hated us”) 156 consecutive weeks of a show called South Africa Now.
Rory’s partner is the alternative-news legend Danny Schechter, whose basic premise through 40 years of media criticism has been that the media always gets it wrong (Danny Schechter “the News Dissector” was his handle during the seventies in Boston at WBCN-FM, whose staff he led out on strike when Mel Karmazin’s Infinity Broadcasting acquired the station). He also co-produced a long-running series (on scattered public-television stations) called Rights and Wrong: Human Rights Television. “I was told human rights was not a significant organizing principle for a television series – unlike cooking,” he said.
Then, too, when Rory launched the MediaChannel in 1999, he recruited Walter Cronkite as an adviser, which gives the company a further spectral, news-of-the-world imprimatur.
My favorite aspect of the Globalvision operation is that its investors are a group of incredibly elegant, very world-weary left-leaning Italian aristocrats (Leonardo Mondadori of the Italian media family among them). This seems to make the point that only foreigners care about other foreigners or that rich foreigners are different from rich Americans in that they don’t have to get richer or, possibly, that foreigners just have no idea which end is up (as a business corollary: If no one else will invest in you, go abroad).
I knew I’d hear from Rory in short order after the attack.
“Everybody missed the fucking story – totally, completely, 100 percent missed it!” he shouted at me over the phone. (He followed up with an e-mail: “Don’t forget probable Iraqi agent Ramzi Yousef was thwarted in 1995 in a planned terror attack originating in the Philippines to hijack six or more jetliners and use them as flying cruise missiles.”)
Indeed, with hardly any preamble or foreshadowing, this story had been dropped into our laps, and almost nothing in it made any sense. The airline schools. The terror cells. The Khyber Pass. Sleeper agents. Osama himself. His 52 siblings. Almost every day since the attack, the New York Times has created uniquely uninformative graphic presentations with thumbnail photos and dotted lines and little synopses of the crossover relationships. I have seen – and who hasn’t? – the same “inside the Taliban” footage countless times (the woman being shot in the sports stadium). Our very notionlessness, our cultural remoteness, has become the story line. This shadow enemy. The impossibility of knowing where to attack, or of finding the money, or of identifying the perps. Knowing almost nothing, we’ve settled for identifying the villain as some pure spasm of all-powerful, far-reaching, apocalyptic irrationality.
“I really don’t want to hear about those 70 virgins again,” said Rory.
Let me say it once more: Rory was right. We should have known more about their grievances and our vulnerabilities. And if we had, we might have even – let’s say it – avoided the catastrophe (soon, no doubt, the blame chapter will start, and might fairly encompass the media as well as the intelligence community).
And yet, as I listened to Rory – I must confess – much of what he was saying was still boring.
Foreigners always always ask why the American media doesn’t have a greater interest in other countries. It’s hard to give a polite answer. The impolite answer is that America is the big story.
Back in the eighties, I decided I ought to live abroad for a while because that’s what journalists did. I argued then with a friend who was a movie executive who said leaving the country was a bad idea, that people who lived outside the U.S. fell out of the loop, lost a certain sort of savvy and pop-culture knowingness. This, as it turned out, was completely true, as I learned after a year in Rome. There was little currency in knowing about anything outside America – and having missed a season of trends or celebrities here, you were definitely at a media-career disadvantage.
This culture, this mass media, this rate of change, this wealth-creation machine crowds out everything else. (Not just for us but for foreigners too – there is no American obsession like a foreigner’s American obsession.) What interest, outside of universities and left-wing holdovers, there might have been in foreignness got absorbed in the globalization thing, which is really about the spread of Americanism anyway. And it’s not only that the American story is larger, and better-packaged, than the rest-of-the-world story but that the very language of the story is different. We are (or were) living in a post-political, post-ideological, post-information world, whereas everybody else was still talking some sixties-type talk, embarrassing in its earnestness, in its stubborn politicalness, in its lack of market-sensitiveness.
But here we are: The world is as it is.
A piquant irony of recent days is that the new CNN chief, Walter Isaacson, who in this post-news era had brilliantly transformed himself from a political journalist into a non-news genius, and who had been brought in to CNN to revive it with his news-you-can-use skills, is now presiding over a CNN resurgence as the once and future hard-news channel.
Rory’s point is really, I think, about bad news. What we’ve done is sheltered ourselves from it. News is boring because it is bad – because there is no easy-to-follow story line, no characters to identify with, no money to be made off it. If it sucks, which bad news does, you can’t monetize it.
An interest in bad news demands a certain high level of national seriousness and gravity and, possibly, hopelessness.
“Can entertainment companies produce news?” is Rory’s bottom-line, left-wing question. News you need, he means, rather than news you want. What, in other words, is the market rationale for producing the kind of boring, bad news that might give you the background that could provide some warning for when you’re going to be attacked – but that no one watches?
Now, of course, ratings are up for news that sucks.
And it is possible, I think, although not necessarily desirable, that the shock to our systems has been so great that a true cultural inversion has taken place, and what we want to do now is look into the abyss.