The Jury Talks Back

7/10/2009

Mass Media is Dead. Long Live Mass Media

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fritz @ 2:18 pm

I’m sure that wiser heads with more strokable chins will weigh in on Carl M. Cannon’s excellent “Sarah ‘Barracuda” Palin and the Piranhas of the Press”, especially with regard to the detailed analysis of the particular example in his piece, but I thought I could add something to the general discussion by pointing to the prescient analysis of William Powers in his 2005 The Atlantic piece, “The Massless Media”.

Powers prefigures Cannon by pointing out that the media of biased reporting and political agendas, let alone lies, exaggerations, and character assassination, is the older, time-honored formula.  Regarding the partisanship of the media, Powers writes,

This partisanship was not typically expressed in high-minded appeals to readers’ better instincts. As Tocqueville wrote, “The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.” When Martin Chuzzlewit, the central character of the Dickens novel by the same name, arrives in the New York City of the early 1840s, he is greeted by newsboys hawking papers with names like the New York Stabber and the New York Keyhole Reporter. “Here’s the New York Sewer!,” one newsie shouts. “Here’s the Sewer‘s exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer‘s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer‘s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old.”

Where Powers differs from Cannon is in the notion that somehow the death of the media as we know it, and the rebirth of the intensely partisan, niche media, is a moment of loss.  Cannon seems to get the transition right, a move from papers that are little more than the voices of faction, to a kind of objectivity, more pose than reality, back to the avowed exercise of partisan politics, but he doesn’t see, as Powers does, that this is a return to something natural and necessary and the death of something artificial and accidental.

Powers is at his best when he notes,

Yet even though the media of this period were profuse, partisan, and scandalously downmarket, they were at the same time a powerful amalgamator that encouraged participatory democracy and forged a sense of national identity. Michael Schudson, a professor of communication and sociology at the University of California at San Diego and the author of The Sociology of News (2003), says that the rampant partisanship displayed by newspapers “encouraged people to be attentive to their common enterprise of electing representatives or presidents.” Commenting that “politics was the best entertainment in town in the middle of the 19th century,” Schudson compares its effect to that of sports today. “Professional baseball is an integrative mechanism even though it works by arousing very partisan loyalties,” he says. In other words, newspapers helped pull the country together not by playing down differences and pretending everyone agreed but by celebrating and exploiting the fact that people didn’t. It’s the oldest American paradox: nothing unifies like individualism. (emphasis added)

The mass, objective media is dead.  Cannon’s analysis of the destruction of Sarah Palin probably isn’t enough to plan the funeral around, but we have to stop pretending that the patient can be saved.  To give us a sense of this sentiment in operation, in The Federalist Papers #1 Publius writes,

In the course of the preceding observations, I have had an eye, my fellow-citizens, to putting you upon your guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision in a matter of the utmost moment to your welfare, by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth. You will, no doubt, at the same time, have collected from the general scope of them, that they proceed from a source not unfriendly to the new Constitution. Yes, my countrymen, I own to you that, after having given it an attentive consideration, I am clearly of opinion it is your interest to adopt it. I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness. I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded. The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity. I shall not, however, multiply professions on this head. My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.


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