Back to the future

Kurt Andersen at New York Magazine takes on an issue near to my heart and gets it wrong. Nevertheless, for what he does get right, I think this is an important essay, and one that I heartily recommend.

The article is titled, “Premodern America. As Dan Rather’s old-media world fades out, the future is beginning to look weirdly like the past. Welcome to the neo-nineteenth century.” Andersen’s thesis is that new media — specifically blogging — is bringing us a news media that more resembles the partisan rantings of the mid-nineteenth century than the logical, rational (objective) press of the 20th century. I wrote about this same thesis 11 years ago in a commentary for Electronic Media, so I obviously support his conclusions. Where he gets it wrong is with the title, and this is where his intellectual bias is showing.

Here are some excerpts:

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?

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.

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.

While I certainly concur with the essence of what Andersen is trying to say, he gets it wrong in ascribing partisan or opinion journalism to “premodern” times. What really governed the press in the days of which he speaks was argument, not opinion. It has nothing to do with premodern times (those before the enlightenment, when faith dominated western civilization). Argument with information is certainly a modern concept. In fact, I’d venture to say it was argument that broke the back of “the church” when the modern era began.

What’s really happening is we’ve entered the Postmodern era, one that rejects the notion of logic and reason (and their inevitable hierarchies) as God. We are going back to the future, but we miss the point if we simply look at the nineteenth century.

Moreover, the return of argument into the press is a welcome event to me. The contemporary (MSM) press isn’t so much about Modernism as it is about the social engineering visions of the father of “professional” journalism, Walter Lippmann. With a professional (detached, objective) press, Lippmann’s élite institutions could run things through what he called the manufacture of consent. This is the straw man that is crumbling today.

And just as the modern era absorbed elements of the premodern era, so will the postmodern era absorb elements of both. In that sense, I don’t see the MSM absorbing blogging and citizens media. I think it’ll be the other way around.

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