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Todd Gitlin: The Tinsel Age of Journalism

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

After all these decades, here's the strange thing: what I remember are his hands, not his face.  But perhaps that's fitting for a writer.  His name was Robert Shaplen and he was a correspondent for the New Yorker.  My parents knew him and, as a boy, I idolized him.  From World War II on, he covered Asia.  He seemed to me the most adventurous man on the planet.  With him in mind, I was sure that there could be nothing better or more romantic than being a "foreign correspondent."  (That, of course, was before I grew up and discovered that I didn't even like to travel.)  It was a dream that stuck with me for years, along with the dream of the newspaper itself, and the habit learned in boyhood -- now disappearing from much of our world -- of reading the paper daily (sports section first, then front to back). 

Even now, it's an addiction I can't shake.  When it comes to the print paper, however, I'm increasingly part of a lonely crowd.  I first realized the change was coming in the early 2000s.  Back then, I used to parachute into the Berkeley journalism school every spring to be an editor to a crew of future reporters.  Every morning, you could get free copies of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and a couple of other papers.  As a lifelong news junkie, it seemed like heaven to me.  But to my surprise, my students often didn't take the papers at all, free or not.  One day, one of them explained that by the time she hit school, she had already checked out the New York Times and the LA Times online twice (the night before and that morning).  The actual paper was already older than Methuselah in her eyes.

Today, Todd Gitlin, who wrote a classic account of how the news (mis)reported the New Left and antiwar movements of the 1960s (The Whole World Is Watching) and how TV worked back in the 1980s (Inside Prime Time), offers a reminder that my journalistic dreams were just that.  The news, with the usual notable exceptions, was generally a tawdry affair in the service of power.  Still, can there be any question that, as the newspaper fades, we're entering a new age of conglomerated mainstream chaos?  You only needed to check out the "coverage" of the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath -- which you would have had to be blind, deaf, and dumb to miss -- to know that.  What possible dreams (other than coverage nightmares) could emerge from that?

If we got what must have been the largest, most militarized manhunt in our history for two young men briefly on the run in one city, I suspect we also got the largest, most intensive, least impressive media coverage for a single event of (probably) little long-term import.  It was the sort of thing that gives the word "overkill" a bad name.  (Have we learned nothing from the over-the-top reaction to the 9/11 attacks?)  The case itself may fade, but the example of shutting down a city and flooding it with thousands of heavily up-armored police and SWAT teams won't, nor will the flooding of it with just about every media resource that exists on the planet. There's been nothing like it for blotting out the rest of the world (not in my memory anyway) since the O. J. Simpson car chase of 1994 -- and that only lasted hours.

Where's the romance of journalism now?  Not, certainly, in watching days of those talking heads pontificating, of terror "experts" offering their remarkably pointless expertise while next to nothing was known about the suspected bombers, of listening to an endless stream of non-news or swiftly reported errors and idiocies, or of watching vast crowds of reporters cordoned off from the hope of being close to any possible story, ducking and talking breathlessly about nothing whatsoever.

Of course, since O.J., there have been memorable moments in the development of the single 24/7 media spectacle, starting with the first Gulf War in 1990, that initial TV total war with logos, high-tech graphics, nose-cone snuff films, theme music, and retired American generals ("consultants") mimicking sports announcers analyzing the campaign that units they might once have commanded were involved in.  During the recent manhunt, however, just about every major cable channel was on it, and the networks soon followed so that for days all of TV seemed to be nothing but a vast media gaggle in the streets of Boston.  The news itself was a bizarre potage of rumor, unnamed sources with misinformation, quarter-truths, half-truths, outright inaccuracies, and god knows what else. In an age of news staff cutbacks and dropping revenue, it's so much cheaper, of course, to focus all your media energies on one single place and any unfolding event that will glue eyeballs. It was certainly a bizarre spectacle that still needs its chronicler.

In the meantime, Gitlin, whose latest book is Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, offers a little survey of American print journalism on the way down, without a hint of romance in sight. Tom

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Is the Press Too Big to Fail?
It's Dumb Journalism, Stupid
By Todd Gitlin

Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it on paper.  There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish.  The second paper in town has shut down.  Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week.  Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south.  Subscriptions are dwindling.  Online versions don't bring in much ad revenue.  Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to fail?  Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?

In the previous century, there was a brief Golden Age of American journalism, though what glittered like gold leaf sometimes turned out to be tinsel.  Then came regression to the mean.  Since 2000, we have seen the titans of the news presuming that Bush was the victor over Gore, hustling us into war with Iraq, obscuring climate change, and turning blind eyes to derivatives, mortgage-based securities, collateralized debt obligations, and the other flimsy creations with which a vast, showy, ramshackle international financial house of cards was built.  When you think about the crisis of journalism, including the loss of advertising and the shriveled newsrooms -- there were fewer newsroom employees in 2010 than in 1978, when records were first kept -- also think of anesthetized watchdogs snoring on Wall Street while the Arctic ice cap melts.

Deserting readers mean broken business models.  Per household circulation of daily American newspapers has been declining steadily for 60 years, since long before the Internet arrived.  It's gone from 1.24 papers per household in 1950 to 0.37 per household in 2010. To get the sports scores, your horoscope, or the crossword puzzle, the casual reader no longer needs even to glance at a whole paper, and so is less likely to brush up against actual -- even superficial -- news. Never mind that the small-r republican model on which the United States was founded presupposed that some critical mass of citizens would spend a critical mass of their time figuring out what's what and forming judgments accordingly.

Don't be fooled, though, by any inflated talk about the early days of American journalism.  In the beginning, there was no Golden Age.  To be sure, a remark Thomas Jefferson made in 1787 is often quoted admiringly (especially in newspapers): "If it were left to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

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Protected by the First Amendment, however, the press of the early republic was unbridled, scurrilous, vicious, and flagrantly partisan.  In 1807, then-President Jefferson, with much more experience under his belt, wrote, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."

Two Golden Decades

If there was a Golden Age for the American press, it came in a two-decade period during the Cold War, when total per capita daily newspaper circulation kept rising, even as television scooped up eyeballs and eardrums.  Admittedly, most of the time, even then, elites in Washington or elsewhere enjoyed the journalistic glad hand.  Still, from 1954 to 1974, some watchdogs did bark. Civil rights coverage, for example, did help bring down white supremacy, while Vietnam and Watergate reportage helped topple two sitting presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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