Peggy Noonan praises the freedom of choice that demassifying mass media has brought us, while simultaneously exploring its downside:
Forty and 50 years ago, mainstream liberal media executives–middle-aged men who fought in Tarawa or Chosin, went to Cornell, and sat next to the man in the gray flannel suit on the train to the city, who hoisted a few in the bar car, and got off at Greenwich or Cos Cob, Conn.–those great old liberals had some great things in them.
One was a high-minded interest in imposing certain standards of culture on the American people. They actually took it as part of their mission to elevate the country. And from this came…”Omnibus.”
When I was a child of 8 or so I looked up at the TV one day and saw a man cry, “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!” He was on a field of battle, surrounded by mud and loss. I was riveted. Later a man came on the screen and said, “Thank you for watching Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’ ” And I thought, as a little American child: That was something, I gotta find out what a Shakespeare is.
I got that from “Omnibus.”
Those old men on the train–they were strangers, but in the age of media a stranger can change your life.
And because the men on the train had one boss, who shared their vision–he didn’t want to be embarrassed that his legacy was “My Mother the Car”–and because the networks had limited competition, the pressure to live or die by ratings was not so intense as today. The competition for ad dollars wasn’t so killer. They could afford an indulgence. The result was a real public service.
Now the man on the train is a relic, and no one is saying, “As the lucky holders of a broadcast license we have a responsibility to pass on the jewels of our culture to the young.” In a competitive environment that would be a ticket to corporate oblivion at every network, including Fox.
TV is still great, in some ways better than ever. Freedom works.
And yet. When we deposed the old guy on the train, it wasn’t all gain. No longer would the old liberals get to impose their vision. But what took its place was programming for the lowest common denominator. Things that don’t make you reach. Things you don’t want to teach. Eating worms on air-crash island with “Jackass.”
I spoke with a network producer a few weeks ago, an old warhorse who was trying to explain his frustration at the current ratings race. He wrestled around the subject, and I cut with rude words to what I thought he was saying. “You mean it’s gone from the dictatorship of a liberal elite to the dictatorship of the retarded.”
Yes, he said. And it’s not progress.
When liberals miss something in the media, that’s what they should be missing. Not a unity that never existed but standards that were high. When conservatives say there’s nothing to miss, they’re wrong. We lost some bias, but we lost some standards, too.
Betsy Newmark asks, “Why be angry at Fox News“?
But even if you grant that Fox is unequivocably conservative, they’re a small, small part of the overall viewership of nightly news. And, I suspect that Noonan is quite correct – the people who are watching Fox regularly are the ones who are already going to vote Republican. So, why should liberals in New York City be so outraged by their watching a conservative news channel? Could Peggy be right that they just resent having had to give up their monopoly on news dispersal to talk radio, Fox, and the internet? They’re just ticked off that the mainstream media’s barricades have been breached.
In the previous post, I noted the elite media’s derision when Matt Drudge arrived on the scene as the first journalistic star created solely via Internet popularity. But I’ve always found their astonishment at the time so strange. Or as I wrote a year ago:
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.
Liberals have had a commercial television medium that suited their biases for 50 years–a medium which titled further and further to the left beginning in the late 1960s as they did, and whose on-air representatives derided President Reagan’s election in 1980 as they did, and the Republican Congress’ Contract With America in 1994, as they did. Why on earth should they be so surprised that (a) conservatives would want at least one channel that reflected their worldview as well, and (b) someone was finally willing to give them one in the 1990s, once he saw an opportunity to make a profit?