In yesterday’s New York Times, there’s a piece by Patricia Cohen called “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?”. It’s basically a review of The Age of American Unreason, a new book by Susan Jacoby, which, according to the article, was inspired by 9-11.
Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:
“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.
The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”
“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.
At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”
During my years as a Yankee exile, I’ve occasionally been confronted by people who demand some form of explanation for why a developed, education-oriented society like America’s seems to be so full of spectacularly ill-informed people.
That’s not a simple question, of course, and a legitimate answer would have to incorporate dozens of factors, including America’s history of anti-intellectualism, its stark region, race, and class-based divisions, it’s relative geographic isolation and short history, the vilification of academics by conservative ideologues and their comrades in the Christian right, the continued decline of the public education system, not to mention the American myth of the empowered individual, which encourages every citizen to speak his or her mind, no matter how badly it might be functioning at any given time.
The explanation that is dearest to my heart, however, has to do with the dramatic decline in the quality of news coverage since the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news channels. David Simon, an ex-newspaperman and creator of The Wire, wrote an emotional piece about the subject a couple of weeks ago. (Thanks for Damian for passing it on)
Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.
What the hell happened?
I mean, I understand the economic pressures on newspapers. At this point, along with the rest of the wood-pulp Luddites, I’ve grasped that what was on the Internet wasn’t merely advertising for journalism, but the journalism itself. And though I fled the profession a decade ago for the fleshpots of television, I’ve heard tell of the horrors of department-store consolidation and the decline in advertising, of Craigslist and Google and Yahoo. I understand the vagaries of Wall Street, the fealty to the media-chain stockholders, the primacy of the price-per-share.
What I don’t understand is this:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
That’s harsh talk from someone as obviously committed to truth-telling as Simon, but maybe it’s worthwhile to take a look at what would drive a man of his conviction to such a dead end. As he mentions later in the piece, there was a moment, before the full fruition of the 24/7 online and cable news, when newspapers could have insisted on their value, could have declared that what they have to offer – balanced, well-researched investigation and analysis – was valuable enough to pay for. But, as we all know, that didn’t happen. So newspaper circulations declined, everyone adopted tabloid elements in a misguided effort to broaden appeal and in the end…
The people you needed to gather for that kind of storytelling were ushered out the door, buyout after buyout.
So in a city where half the adult black males are unemployed, where the unions have been busted, and crime and poverty have overwhelmed one neighborhood after the next, the daily newspaper no longer maintains a poverty beat or a labor beat. The city courthouse went uncovered for almost a year at one point. The last time a reporter was assigned to monitor a burgeoning prison system, I was a kid working the night desk.
Soon enough, when technology arrived to test the loyalty of longtime readers and the interest of new ones, the newspaper would be offering to cover not more of the world and its issues, but less of both — and to do so with younger, cheaper employees, many of them newspaper-chain transplants with no organic sense of the city’s history.
In place of comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage, readers of even the most serious newspapers were offered celebrity and scandal, humor and light provocation — the very currency of the Internet itself.
Charge for that kind of product? Who would dare?
Woah now, one might think. How dare he take a broad swipe at the net like that? Sure, maybe there’s some filth and fluff, but there’s a lot of good stuff too. And overall the quality of coverage probably hasn’t declined that much. For a local paper from a moderately-sized, postindustrial city it must be tough, but where they have lost, the rest of the country has gained through the expansion of well-funded, serious national (even international!) news organizations like CNN.
In response to that I submit fwd #2: gawker.com’s Extensive History of Terrible CNN.com Headlines, which I received as part of a Time Warner related mail group that I don’t remember ever joining. Here is a small sample:
Eesh. But ok, everybody knows CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc. are television networks. This online thing is just something they do keep up appearances. Wolf Blitzer wants to go to Google parties, that’s all that is. TV coverage, their bread and butter, must be better than that.
So Fox emphasizes sex and CNN emphasizes gimmicky technology… “the very currency of the Internet itself”. And that’s just one of the reasons that we (all) ended up with this.
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