But I have to admit it: I have another feeling that, at a purely personal level, outweighs all of the above. In terms of journalism, of expression, of voice, of fine reporting and superb writing, of a range of news, thoughts, views, perspectives, and opinions about places, worlds, and phenomena that I wouldn't otherwise have known about, there has never been an experimental moment like this. I'm in awe. Despite everything, despite every malign purpose to which the Internet is being put, I consider it a wonder of our age. Yes, perhaps it is the age from hell for traditional reporters (and editors) working double-time, online and off, for newspapers that are crumbling, but for readers, can there be any doubt that now, not the 1840s or the 1930s or the 1960s, is the golden age of journalism?
Think of it as the upbeat twin of NSA surveillance. Just as the NSA can reach anyone, so in a different sense can you. Which also means, if you're a website, anyone can, at least theoretically, find and read you. (And in my experience, I'm often amazed at who can and does!) And you, the reader, have in remarkable profusion the finest writing on the planet at your fingertips. You can read around the world almost without limit, follow your favorite writers to the ends of the Earth.
The problem of this moment isn't too little. It's not a collapsing world. It's way too much. These days, in a way that was never previously imaginable, it's possible to drown in provocative and illuminating writing and reporting, framing and opining. In fact, I challenge you in 2014, whatever the subject and whatever your expertise, simply to keep up.
The Rise of the Reader
In the "golden age of journalism," here's what I could once do. In the 1960s and early 1970s, I read the New York Times (as I still do in print daily), various magazines ranging from the New Yorker and Ramparts to "underground" papers like the Great Speckled Bird when they happened to fall into my hands, and I.F. Stone's Weekly (to which I subscribed), as well as James Ridgeway and Andrew Kopkind's Hard Times, among other publications of the moment. Somewhere in those years or thereafter, I also subscribed to a once-a-week paper that had the best of the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Le Monde in it. For the time, that covered a fair amount of ground.
Still, the limits of that "golden" moment couldn't be more obvious now. Today, after all, if I care to, I can read online every word of the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Le Monde (though my French is way too rusty to tackle it). And that's every single day -- and that, in turn, is nothing.
It's all out there for you. Most of the major dailies and magazines of the globe, trade publications, propaganda outfits, Pentagon handouts, the voiciest of blogs, specialist websites, the websites of individual experts with a great deal to say, websites, in fact, for just about anyone from historians, theologians, and philosophers to techies, book lovers, and yes, those fascinated with journalism. You can read your way through the American press and the world press. You can read whole papers as their editors put them together or -- at least in your mind -- you can become the editor of your own op-ed page every day of the week, three times, six times a day if you like (and odds are that it will be more interesting to you, and perhaps others, than the op-ed offerings of any specific paper you might care to mention).
You can essentially curate your own newspaper (or magazine) once a day, twice a day, six times a day. Or -- a particular blessing in the present ocean of words -- you can rely on a new set of people out there who have superb collection and curating abilities, as well as fascinating editorial eyes. I'm talking about teams of people at what I like to call "riot sites" -- for the wild profusion of headlines they sport -- like Antiwar.com (where no story worth reading about conflict on our planet seems to go unnoticed) or Real Clear Politics (Real Clear World/Technology/Energy/etc., etc., etc.). You can subscribe to an almost endless range of curated online newsletters targeted to specific subjects, like the "morning brief" that comes to me every weekday filled with recommended pieces on cyberwar, terrorism, surveillance, and the like from the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. And I'm not even mentioning the online versions of your favorite print magazine, or purely online magazines like Salon.com, or the many websites I visit like Truthout, Alternet, Commondreams, and Truthdig with their own pieces and picks. And in mentioning all of this, I'm barely scratching the surface of the world of writing that interests me.
There has, in fact, never been a DIY moment like this when it comes to journalism and coverage of the world. Period. For the first time in history, you and I have been put in the position of the newspaper editor. We're no longer simply passive readers at the mercy of someone else's idea of how to "cover" or organize this planet and its many moving parts. To one degree or another, to the extent that any of us have the time, curiosity, or energy, all of us can have a hand in shaping, reimagining, and understanding our world in new ways.
Yes, it is a journalistic universe from hell, a genuine nightmare; and yet, for a reader, it's also an experimental world, something thrillingly, unexpectedly new under the sun. For that reader, a strangely democratic and egalitarian Era of the Word has emerged. It's chaotic; it's too much; and make no mistake, it's also an unstable brew likely to morph into god knows what. Still, perhaps someday, amid its inanities and horrors, it will also be remembered, at least for a brief historical moment, as a golden age of the reader, a time when all the words you could ever have needed were freely offered up for you to curate as you wish. Don't dismiss it. Don't forget it.
Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
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Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt