Ed Driscoll

It's Mourning In The Overculture

I’m not at all sure I agree with John Derbyshire’s take on the passing of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, and the cultural era that made them superstars:

Working up my Radio Derb transcript here, I find I’ve been chastened by the concurrent death of Farrah Fawcett, who was only twenty months younger than me. I hear footsteps coming up the driveway, and shall keep perfectly still till they’ve gone, as I hope and trust they will. In that spirit, I’m trying hard to find something positive to say about the guy the media were calling “the Gloved One” the last time I paid any attention, which I see was a decade or two ago.

All I could come up with was that Jackson, like Fawcett, was a relic of the time when we were a single nation, listening to the same pop songs, going to the same movies, sticking the same babe posters on our bedroom walls, laughing at the same jokes, even giving our kids names from a common stock. Whether Jackson should be extravagantly mourned or not, I leave to you to decide; but that era of national-cultural unity surely should be. Requiescat in pace.

Am I reading that correctly? Does Derbyshire really want to go back to the era of mass media? As I wrote in my Atlas Mugged article back in 2007 on the slow death of mass media and the rise of the Blogosphere:

By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networks’ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaper’s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).

Up until the Reagan years, [Shannon Love of the libertarian Chicago Boyz econo-blog] says, “definitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.” These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed “Gray Lady” largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, “If the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, they’d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.”

Love calls this “the Parliament of Clocks”: creating the illusion of truth or accuracy by force of consensus. “Really, the only way that consumers can tell that they’re getting accurate information is to check another media source,” Love says. “And unfortunately, that creates an incentive for the media sources to all agree on the same story.”

So yes, there was a shared mass cultural identity in the 1970s, but no Rush, no Fox News, no Pajamas Media, no Reason.com, no Weekly Standard, no YouTube, and no Blogosphere. And no 24/7 continually updated Website version of National Review; you waited for your copy to arrive in the (snail) mail and watched Buckley on Firing Line on the weekend. And for someone on the left who reads that laundry list and thinks, “Sounds good to me!”, there was also no CNN, no MSNBC, no Daily Kos, no Air America, and no Andrew Sullivan.com.

There’s no doubt today’s culture is a much more fractured and crude media environment; and certainly the grown-ups are long gone from the last vestiments of the liberal overculture. But it’s also one that provides infinitely more choices than the era that made superstars of Jackson, Farrah, and that now virtually forgotten other celebrity death this week, Ed McMahon. And it’s one that anyone can join, an idea that certainly cheeses off those relics left over from the era before democratized media no end.

Update: And speaking of the Chicago Boyz, “The Farrah Fawcett – Ayn Rand Connection”, revealed!