The Monica Lewinsky affair is a root cause of the recent, dramatic losses in Old Media audiences, and a key reason they may never reemerge as leading New Media brands. A look at history shows us why.
News defines communities: News outlets throughout history have provided us with a sense of community and shared values, according to NYU’s Mitchell Stephens. News of legal violations reinforces our understanding of acceptable behaviors. News of the out-of-the-ordinary strengthens our consensus on what qualifies as ordinary. What is considered “newsworthy” tells us what is important and valued. “Each shared perception [and] each shared reaction… reawakens a sense of shared destiny and shared purpose,” Stephens wrote.
Since America’s people have always been diverse, we have typically been able to choose among many news communities. In his 1835 book Democracy in America, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how our newspapers drew together communities of the like-minded, organizing them into “associations” that could impact political events. This was true until recent decades, when major metropolitan areas still had several newspapers. Some were liberal, some conservative. Some focused on business, others on gossip. Some were for the upscale, others for the downscale. Each time we purchased a paper, we renewed our membership in a community that shared our tastes and values.
But in recent decades, we have all been forced into the same news community, and not by choice. Few now live in cities served by more than one daily newspaper, all of which tend to offer the same set of national and international stories. This has happened largely because of the economics of newspapers, the impact of TV news, and the dominance of a network of newspapers that, under the banner of the “Associated Press,” operate as a competition-suppressing cartel. The single set of national stories we now receive are hatched each night in a front-page-coordinating phone call between the New York Times and Washington Post, which is then dutifully copied by other outlets.
Watergate: A triumph of community: Watergate was a watershed moment for modern journalism. Even though by then we had already been involuntarily forced into a single news community, and even though a landslide majority had reelected President Nixon just two years earlier, we still all shared a belief that wiretapping an opponent’s campaign offices and covering up the crime were wrong. Our nation applauded journalists’ efforts to oust Nixon.
Yet the news media misread our appreciation for their heroic efforts. We were glad they had branded something wrong that a vast majority of us believed to be wrong. Also, we were glad they had righted that wrong. However, we were not prepared to give them carte blanche to follow their own values or develop a cynicism that held our leaders and cherished institutions to low expectations. The seeds of the Old Media’s demise had been planted.
Monicagate: The community ruptures: It is hard to recapture the shock in America when this totally unprecedented news broke. A married president while in office had an affair with a 22-year-old intern under his charge. In less than ten years, we had gone from a president who would not take his jacket off in the Oval Office to one who could not keep his zipper up.
Unlike Watergate, journalists failed to do something that may now prove fatal to the Old Media. They never clearly condemned the president’s sexual relations as “wrong.” Nor that Clinton lied to them about it. Nor the credible allegations made by Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick that Clinton may have engaged in violations ranging from sexual harassment to rape. These were reported as if they were just political squabbles, typically with one side saying it was just about sex and the other side dismissed as “Clinton-haters” by James Carville and a “war room” that the media seemed to respect, if not celebrate.
The significant number of Americans to whom it was self-evident that Clinton’s behavior was a previously unthinkable outrage promptly revoked their membership in an Old Media that clearly did not share their values. According to the Pew Research Center, those who believed news organizations were “immoral” tripled from 13% to 38% – a level it has maintained since, dipping momentarily only in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the media did share the values of a united America.
Now that news is converging onto the internet, which will provide a multitude of “news associations,” the Old Media outlets will likely never be able to reunite us in a single news community with shared values. Certainly, not those Americans who are convinced they sold their soul to a devil with a blue dress on.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.”