Media Anarchy Has Its Downside

We are talking past each other, the left and right in America. I suppose we always did, but I’m noticing it more. We have different intellectual styles (rather too emotive, arguably too linear), start with different assumptions, and recognize different data. We could be speaking different languages. Which is odd, since all half the country does is talk. (The other half puts roofs on houses.) You’d think they’d find a way to break through.

And so I come to Bill Clinton and Fox News Channel. A week after it aired, the interview still dominates the dinner party. Did he rouse his base? I think so. Did he remind everyone else of what they find objectionable in him? I know so.

But in Manhattan this week at gatherings of hungry liberals—they are feeling frisky, they can smell victory coming, though this is not necessarily indicative of anything, as Manhattan liberals are traditionally the last to know, and occasionally and endearingly concede they are the last—the conversation wasn’t really about Clinton, but Fox News.

One can’t exaggerate how large Fox looms in the liberal imagination. They see it as huge and mighty and credit it with almost mythical powers. It is a propaganda channel whose mission it is to destroy the Democratic Party. That’s part of why Clintons’ performance had such salience. Finally he was standing up to an evil empire.

It is odd that they are so spooked. In October America is set to become a nation of 300 million. What a big country. Fox News’s average evening prime-time viewership is less than two million. Its average daytime is less than a million. And if my mail is an indication, they’re already Republicans. Fox’s power is that it is an alternative to the mainstream media. It did not take its shape by deeply inhaling liberalism and slowly breathing it out.

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The left sees Fox as a symptom and promoter of anarchy. The old unity, the old essential unity one used to experience when one turned on the TV in 1950 or 1980, has been fractured, broken up. We are becoming balkanized. Fox, blogs, talk radio, the Internet, citizen reporters—it’s all producing cacophony, and heralds a future of No Compromise. No one trusts the information they’re given anymore, as they trusted Uncle Walter. This is bad for the country.

It is an odd thing about modern liberals that they’re made anxious by the unsanctioned. A conservative is more likely to see what’s happening as freedom. It isn’t that honest and impartial news lost its place of respect, it’s that establishment liberalism lost its journalistic monopoly. And it was a monopoly.

Not everyone believed Uncle Walter. Uncle Walter, and Chet and David, were all there was. But while they reigned, Americans were buying “Conscience of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater, and Reagan was quietly rising way out in California, and Spiro Agnew and Bill Safire were issuing mainstream hits like “effete snobs” and “nattering nabobs.” In the time liberals think of as the last great unified era, Americans were rising up.

The new media did not divide us. The new media gave voice to our divisions. The result: more points of view, more subjects discussed, more data presented. This, in a great republic, a great democracy, a leader of the world in a dangerous time, is not bad but good.

But nothing comes free. All big changes have unexpected benefits and unanticipated drawbacks. Here is a loss: the man on the train.

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.”

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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.