Ed Driscoll

When Worlds Collide: Watching A Tectonic Media Shift In Progress

In his 2001 obituary for Katharine Graham (deliciously titled, “Kay, Why?” and reprinted this weekend on his site), Mark Steyn describes the legacy media at its peak:

Obituary-wise, Kay was the hostess with the mostes’, but nevertheless an inevitable hierarchy quickly set in, with points for how recently you’d last seen her (“At lunch last month …”) and a bonus for whether she’d come to you (Barbara Walters scored big here, entertaining Kay at her pad in the Hamptons). Many anecdotes were told and re-told and re-re-told: 30 years ago, dining at the home of columnist Joe Alsop, Mrs. Graham discreetly rebelled by refusing to join the ladies while the men discussed world affairs over brandy and cigars. As she modestly explained to Larry King on CNN, this brave stand singlehandedly brought about an end to the custom throughout the town. Perhaps Washington was singularly backward in this respect. By this stage, in London, New York, Winnipeg, all the great cities of the world, the ladies were no longer obliged to retire after dinner, a social revolution accomplished amazingly enough without the intervention of Mrs. Graham. One writer stood head and shoulders above the crowd, which admittedly isn’t terribly difficult when everybody else is prostrate. The anonymous editorialist at The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review evidently returned from lunch drunk and momentarily forgot himself. Possibly while working as a busboy in Washington in the early Sixties he’d been the victim of some casual slight by Mrs. Graham. At any rate, summing up her life he started conventionally enough but then wandered deplorably off-message:

Born in New York City, the daughter of multimillionaire Eugene Meyer, she grew up privileged. In keeping with her father’s fortune, she graduated from Vassar College, where she was involved with the leftist trends of the day … She married Felix Frankfurter’s brilliant law clerk, Philip Graham, who took over running The Post, which her father purchased at a bankruptcy sale. Graham built the paper but became estranged from Kay. She had him committed to a mental hospital, and he was clearly intending divorce when she signed him out and took him for a weekend outing during which he was found shot. His death was ruled a suicide. Within 48 hours, she declared herself the publisher.

That’s the stuff! As the Tribune-Review’s chap has it, Mrs. G got her philandering spouse banged up in the nuthouse and then arranged a weekend pass with a one-way ticket. “His death was ruled a suicide.” Lovely touch that. Is it really possible Katharine Graham offed her hubby? Who cares? To those who think the worst problem with the American press is its awful stultifying homogeneity, the Tribune-Review’s deranged perverseness is to be cherished. Give that man a Pulitzer!But, of course, they never do. Instead, with feeble predictability, they gave the Pulitzer to Mrs. Graham’s own carefully veiled memoir, Personal History. Her formula for her publications was succinctly expressed: “Mass With Class” — “perhaps the best three-word definition for what a good news magazine should be,” wrote Mark Whitaker in Newsweek. But what “Mass With Class” boils down to in practice is the genteel middlebrow conformity that makes so much of the mainstream U.S. media such a world-class yawnfest. “Mass With Class” means you don’t ask Hillary Clinton about her husband’s perjury and trashing of his, ahem, female acquaintances but only whether she finds it difficult coping with the accusations and if she thinks this is because conservatives have a difficult time dealing with her as a strong intelligent woman in her own right. “Mass With Class” means Dan Rather piously declaring that the Chandra Levy story is too unseemly for the CBS Evening News, no matter that it involves a Congressman obstructing a police investigation.

“Mass With Class” equals “All the news that’s fit to print” and it’s never more protective than when giving the mass a glimpse of the class. Thus, Mrs. Graham’s death clippings tell us more in their oleaginous uniformity about the relationship between journalism and politics than the heroics of Woodward and Bernstein ever did. The mourners at her funeral “read like a Who’s Who,” albeit a somewhat obvious one: Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates, Oscar de la Renta, John McCain, Tina Brown. I shall refrain from disparaging the guest list any further as our own power couple, Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel, were also among those present. But the cosiness of this world is American journalism’s principal problem: There is “us” and there is “them,” the “class” and the “mass,” and the media have long since decided which side of the fence they belong on.

Mrs. Graham wasn’t a crusading journalist taking on the establishment. She was the establishment, and poor old Nixon wasn’t. She was great at parties, he was hopeless. Awkward, sweaty, no social skills, no small talk. After his resignation, he sat down for several weeks of in-depth TV interviews with David Frost. One Monday morning, as they were waiting for the camera crew to finish setting up, Nixon decided to try a little locker-room guy talk with Frost and asked, “Did you do any fornicating this weekend?” Frostie was doing quite a bit of fornicating in those days, but as he gleefully recounted to pals that’s the very last word real guys use, swinger to swinger. By contrast, Mrs. Graham always knew le mot juste. As her own papers noted approvingly, she dismissed one Reagan administration official as a “starf—er.” Maybe he was. But nobody starf—s like the U.S. media, and it would no doubt be deeply satisfying to Katharine Graham that her death gave them an opportunity for the star— to end them all.

It’s weirdly ironic–despite the fact that they’re in the news business, the media are often the last to spot a realignment of their own industry. Witness how the Big Three networks never expected cable TV’s rise in the early to mid-1980s, the first in a series of (to borrow Alvin Toffler’s word), demassifications. The next was Rush Limbaugh and talk radio’s rise during the same period the following decade, equally unexpected. Witness how Matt Drudge took newspaper journalists all by surprise, even though he shouldn’t have: the Internet had existed since 1969, the World Wide Web, which runs on it, since the early-1990s, and it was due for a media celebrity of its own. And others were destined to follow, as Weblogs make self-publishing a breeze.This summer marked the one year anniversary of the New York Times announcing for all to see its bias, and this past September, the one year anniversary of RatherGate. As with its namesake 30 years prior, as ill-conceived as Dan Rather and Mary Mapes’ initial story was, it was their attempted obfuscation afterwards that exposed their flaws.

The rest of journalism’s excesses last year in an effort to get their man elected didn’t put much Class into the Mass that is the legacy media, leading Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, who worships at that mass, to write:

A political party is dying before our eyes — and I don’t mean the Democrats. I’m talking about the “mainstream media,” which is being destroyed by the opposition (or worse, the casual disdain) of George Bush’s Republican Party; by competition from other news outlets (led by the internet and Fox’s canny Roger Ailes); and by its own fraying journalistic standards.

Speaking of fraying standards, Newsweek’s own “Koran in the Can” scandal this year, and the left’s recent war against its own house organ are only accelerating the legacy media’s internal struggles.Meanwhile, there’s a successor on the horizon. Will it succeed? Well, the legacy media is certainly giving them lots of help. After the Dallas Cowboys lost Super Bowl XIII to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1979, Charlie Waters, its star free safety told a reporter, “Hey, any great NFL defensive alignment that doesn’t change will eventually be overcome and annihilated”. Any paradigm past its prime eventually will as well.

The legacy media’s paradigms are getting as old as–well as old as the overuse of the word paradigm. They’re long overdue for upgrade or replacement. The era of Mass With Class–if indeed it ever actually had it, is now most certainly Mass With Sclerotic Pompous Asses. And an era where anyone can be a journalist (and probably eventually will be when and if they have news or an opinion worth sharing) doesn’t need or Katharine Graham–or Dan Rather, (reality’s answer to Ted Baxter) for that matter–to tell it what to think.