The medium isn't the message

Why the new media won't save the world, or even displace the old media

Published January 13, 1997 6:01PM (EST)

media criticism hasn't changed much since Spiro Agnew's 1970 denunciation of the "nattering nabobs of negativism," the effete media elites who look down their noses at the "silent majority." Oh, sure, there's a lot more media criticism today, professional and amateur. But whether the critic hails from the right, the left, or the center, or affects some postmodern political mishmash that won't even fit on the charts, the complaint is largely the same: that the media is out of touch, imposing its own, possibly pernicious, agenda on the rest of us. Noam Chomsky believes that the people hunger for news about East Timor The New York Times doesn't see fit to print; right-wingers believe the press is hiding the truth about Vince Foster.Over the past several years, a new breed of media critic has begun to emerge, one that sees the perfidy and obsolescence of the old media as the inevitable outcome of its old-fashioned ways and out-of-date technology. For salvation, these critics look to new communications technologies, especially the Internet.

In the pages of Wired, hot-button novelist Michael Crichton announced the imminent death of the old-media "Mediasaurus", which he described as an obsolete institution that, like Detroit in the 1970s, seems intent on producing a "product of very poor quality" with "too much chrome and glitz." And in HotWired, journalist Josh Quittner announced the birth of the

These were but the opening salvos in what has become a barrage. In "Wired Style", a new media manifesto disguised as a style guide for way new editors, Wired's Constance Hale celebrates a new kind of writing that "jacks us in to the soul of a new society" which sure sounds cool, whatever it might possibly mean. And Jon Katz, in both his "Media Rant" column on HotWired's Netizen site and in his new book "Virtuous Reality," has attempted to spell out in detail a new kind of journalism and a "new code of media ethics" for the interactive age. (Katz's book, it should be noted, is primarily an attack on moral-values bullies like William Bennett; his evangelizing for new media slips in the side door.)

At first glance, these critics would seem to share little with one another, beyond their hatred of old media and their Wired connections. Crichton, for his part, is tired of all the "flashy chrome trim" one sees every night on the network news; he wants the facts, just the facts, and lots of them. Today, he argues, "the news of television and in newspapers is generally perceived as less accurate, less objective, less informed than it was a decade ago." Though he has a lot of them himself, Crichton doesn't want to have to hear the glib opinions of others. He wants raw data and "good information;" he wants a news service "in which all the facts [are] true, the quotes [aren't] piped, the statistics [are] presented by someone who knew something about statistics."

Katz, by contrast, likes opinions, his own and those of others. Like most writers on the Web (including those in Salon), he is primarily a commentator, not a reporter. To Katz, media "objectivity" is part of the problem. Hale, in Wired Style, agrees. "We celebrate subjectivity," she writes. "As far as we're concerned, it's OK to have fun with facts."

But Crichton and Katz have more in common than you might think: both prefer the raw to the cooked. They seek a journalism free of intermediaries, one that erodes the distinction between news "consumer" and news "producer." Crichton would like, essentially, to do his own reporting to dig up facts and assemble his own interpretations from them. He wants to "remove [the] filters" between himself and the raw data of the news, freeing himself from such encumbrances as "Dan Rather, or the front page editor, or the reporter who pruned the facts in order to be lively and vivid."

Katz, too, argues against too much filtering. What he wants is journalism as he imagines the founding fathers practiced it, back in the days when "there was almost no distinction between citizens and journalists," before editors and elite media stars set themselves up as "gatekeepers" for the news.

In a series of developments that Katz argues have "shaken the old order down to its wingtips," new technologies have made possible a return to a truly democratic kind of journalism, based on the notion of almost unlimited interactivity. Katz finds the very notion exhilarating. "The idea that we can question and talk directly to one another, without relying on journalists as intermediaries," he writes, "transforms the notion of culture."

All it takes is a computer and modem and a few rudimentary HTML skills: virtually anyone can compete directly with media giants like Time Magazine. "Now anybody with a VCR, cable box or computer is a miniature media tycoon, a little Bill Paley," Katz writes. "Millions of Americans are faxing, e-mailing and calling voice-mail boxes to sound off on every conceivable issue. Tens of thousands of idiosyncratic Web sites and home pages have sprung up on the ... Internet. This is more freedom of the press than journalists conceive of in their worst nightmares." Indeed, so convinced is Katz of the power of interactivity he refuses to write for publications that won't allow him to attach his e-mail address to his prose.For Katz, as well as for Hale, this opposition to filtering extends into the realm of style. For Hale, "rough-edged ... over-the-top" writing has much more appeal than well-burnished prose. Hale and Katz hope that the new journalism can draw upon the raw, frantic energy one finds in e-mail and Usenet postings, filled with prose bashed out without pause and without correction. The "new fractured language" said to emerge is "definitely not as elegant or polished as English used to be, but in a way, much more vital," Katz explains.

In a section of "Wired Style" called, with typical neo-adolescent bravado, "Screw The Rules," Hale tells her readers that "[p]rovocative writing demands out-of-the-box thinking, a calculated willingness to break many of journalism's cardinal rules." And what exactly does this mean? Letting your writers explore the limits of their four-letter-word vocabulary. A refusal to edit away their grammatical errors. Hale likes the idea of "preserv[ing] every odd comma and random reference in a writer's stream of consciousness," demanding that editors, when faced with energetically lumpy prose, "resist filing it down, polishing it, editing it away." Katz, too, wages a kind of guerrilla war against editing, chastising The New York Times for having the gall to polish his writing and praising his editors at HotWired, who more or less let him be.

of course, it's not as if the old media has remained quietly shaking in its wingtips. Quite a few of its representatives have responded in kind to the onslaught of way new criticism. "I'm very worried about the Internet," Walter Cronkite recently told The San Francisco Chronicle. "People get on there and pretend they're giving the news and have absolutely no ethical standards on which they're operating and no facilities, nor experience to do it. It's a very dangerous thing. I hope this shakes down in a little while. I have a feeling that ... eventually the standard news organizations, both the networks and newspapers, will dominate on the Internet for news dissemination." (This last bit must seem, to Katz and the rest, like the wounded bellow of Mediasaurus Rex shortly before it turns into fossil fuel.) Cronkite's best-selling "A Reporter's Life" is hardly an old-media manifesto, but alongside his avuncular retellings of endless old-media war stories, Cronkite sketches out the basic assumptions of his kind of reporting. And in his memoir "One Man's America," former Time editor Henry Grunwald recounts his life in and out of journalism over the course of half a century — in the process telling us a great deal about the journalistic ideals that lay behind the legendary "Time style." The two do not, by any means, present a united front. Cronkite, for his part, offers up a rather clunky defense of journalistic objectivity ("My job was to try as hard as I could to remove every trace of opinion from the broadcast. ... If people knew how I felt on an issue ... I had failed in my mission"). Grunwald, by contrast, dismisses the notion of objectivity as "largely phony;" he'd most likely see Cronkite's carefully guarded neutrality as little more than an elaborate, and not altogether honest, kind of play-acting. (Time itself never maintained a rigid distinction between reporting and editorializing.) But both men would look askance at the way-new insistence on journalism-in-the-raw: they prefer their journalism processed and filtered. Cronkite learned his trade in the bustling newsrooms of the United Press — writing, rewriting, and otherwise manufacturing copy wholesale for the "teletype machines clatter[ing] twenty-four hours a day, an insatiable maw demanding sixty words of copy a minute." In such an environment, anyone who insisted on "preserv[ing] every odd comma and random reference" in a piece of prose would be out the door in a minute. And it is hard to imagine any journalism more processed than that practiced by Time Magazine in days of old. Under the Time system, correspondents would send their reports to the Time main office; these reports would form the raw material from which writers would construct a story; their stories would in turn go to one editor, then another, then would be sent on to a team of researchers who would verify all the facts in the piece, certifying "with a pencil dot over every word, that the story was correct." All this editing was designed not only to ward off libel suits, but to make sure all the prose in the magazine read as if produced by the same machine.And both Cronkite and Grunwald are unabashed in their defense of the journalist as a gatekeeper of the news. In one rather astonishing passage in Cronkite's generally less-than-astonishing book, he defends FDR's habit of holding informal (and off the record) press conferences — more like conversations, really — with assorted representatives of the White House press corps. "When the President felt the urge, he'd send the word and the dozen or so newsmen would pile into the Oval Office and stand in a semi-circle around his desk," Cronkite recalls. "The conversation was a free-for-all ... Nothing could be attributed to the President unless he gave specific approval. It was a wonderful system." Nothing could better symbolize the operation of the media "filter:" a tiny cadre of reporters given privileged information from on high, which they were duty-bound not to tell the public at large.

It's easy enough to see the flaws in the old style of journalism. Heavily processed prose can be flat and dull or merely mannered; it's hard for an individual voice to survive editing by committee. And a too-rigid belief in journalists-as-gatekeepers can lead to an insider's arrogance. When such arrogance is combined with a too-cozy relationship with the powers that be, it can become both insufferable and dangerous (see Christopher Hitchens' Salon essay on the ultimate "access" journalist, Bob Woodward.) Those who rock the boat the least, who can offer up conventional-wisdom-on-demand with a practiced assurance, get the biggest rewards. Rotating-door political advisor/political pundit David Gergen pulled in nearly half a million dollars from speaking engagements in one year (1992), sharing his wisdom with everyone from the Chase Manhattan Bank to the Cosmetics and Toiletries Association. And the Beltway media's ultimate insider couple — ABC's Cokie Roberts and her husband Stephen Roberts, formerly of U.S. News — once pocketed $45,000 for appearing at a breakfast and luncheon held by Chicago's Northern Trust Bank. (By my calculations, that's more than $10,000 per plate — unless they had seconds.) These large bags of loot may compromise their recipients' ability to report fairly— or at least increase their tendency to see the world through a plutocratic lens. Compared to the closed, incestuous and often stale world of traditional elite journalism, the wild heterogeneity of voices on the Web is certainly refreshing. But is a journalism free of filters really the answer to the old media's shortcomings? I'm not so sure. For one thing, it's much less efficient. I don't have the time or the energy to make sense of the raw data on every issue that's out there; I'd rather base my assessments on the informed opinions of journalists I can trust. And I don't have the patience to wade through the unprocessed words of thousands of citizen-journalists mouthing off on the issues of the day. Michael Kinsley was right: There's a reason some people get paid to write and others don't. No amount of quasi-populist argumentation will transform the typical Usenet blowhard into Tom Paine. "Time style," as it was called in its heyday, with its gratuitous overlays of adjectives and its penchant for inverted sentences, was easy enough to parody. ("Backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind," The New Yorker wrote.) And I can't imagine any writer I know being able to put up with Time's assembly-line-journalism for more than a week. Yet as Grunwald makes all too clear, behind the elaborate fussiness of Time's editing style one found a real respect, even love, for language. "We worshipped words, played with them, laughed over them, made fools of ourselves with them," Grunwald remembers. And it still shows, in Grunwald's own writing if not in Time's prose. It's hardly a coincidence that his massive volume is by far the most readable of all those here under review; Grunwald clearly takes great care with his words, expressing himself with an elegant restraint. Katz could learn a thing or two from him. He's a perfectly readable writer, but freed from the discipline inculcated by a careful editor (and, to be fair, writing on daily deadline), he falls into sloppy ways. Like a guitarist whose ten-minute solo has exhausted his attempts at originality, he falls back again and again on a few familiar riffs, a few favorite clichés. In a Wired essay, he declares that Tom Paine's radical values "fit the Net like a glove;" in a Netizen column, he suggests that one writer's critique of elitist media "fits the existing Washington press corps like a glove;" in yet another column, he declares that the word "seduction ... seems to fit Clinton like a ... " well, you know. I'm not quite sure that the fervor about interactivity is justified, either. I have nothing against interactivity, in moderation — after all, e-mail is what makes my job as an out-of-the-office editor possible. And in a few cases, diligent online activists — posting on Usenet and throwing themselves into the thick of discussions in online conferences and mailing lists — have been able to challenge old-media news stories that have gone awry. Even longtime Net users were amazed at how quickly and thoroughly Time Magazine's notorious Cyberporn cover story was discredited on the Net. (And though Time never ran a retraction, it did run a strange little followup story that looked an awfully lot like one.) Katz, like many Wired types, suggests that the Net functions as a virtual "free market of ideas," in which (reversing Gresham's famous law) good ideas drive out bad. On the Net, Katz argued in one Netizen column, "ideas are rarely taken at face value. They are challenged, debated, honed, and tested in the most basic ways. Errors are corrected. Ideas are updated, fleshed out, changed." Well, sometimes. Other times, though, the Net functions as a vastly expanded game of telephone, with ideas, facts and rumors getting even more distorted with each retelling. Did you hear the one about Craig Shergold and his Good Times cookie recipe? Interactivity doesn't automatically lead to accountability. And though I wish certain journalists could be held more accountable for their actions — I have a few things I'd like to say to Cokie Roberts about the way she's running her career, for example — I'm not sure that complete accountability is a good thing. Sometimes a bit of distance, a bit of alienation, is necessary to get the proper perspective on an issue. There is such a thing as being too accessible: a journalist who knows he's going to get a spam-load of e-mail for taking a position unpopular with his readers may well bite his tongue. Writing, when you come right down to it, is a solitary art, as is reading; too much interactivity gets in the way. One can imagine Katz, seeking the ultimate in interactivity, composing his columns in a special Media Rant AOL chat room:

JDKATZ: What might a new code of media ethics stipulate?
BIGKOK: Any ladies here?
HTBUNS: Hey, JD, are you a babe?
JDKATZ: I'm male. To begin with, reporters writers producers critics and columnists
NITPIK: hey katz, you forgot to punctuate, doncha know what a comma is?
JDKATZ: Look, I know what a comma is, you dumb fuck. Do you know how to work a shift key?
GUIDE478: JDKATZ, obscene language is a violation of AOL's Terms of Service. Please review the rules at KEYWORD TOS.

Katz and Hale's call for way new journalism is stirring, but the reality is more pedestrian. Sure, there's a need for the wild, unvarnished prose they champion. If the Web succeeds in producing writers who "jack us into the soul of a new society," or failing that somewhat vague objective, simply creates writers who use language in new and unaccustomed ways, more power to it.

But most new media, in practice, looks much more like the old media than one might think. Don't think Netizen; think c|net. And this isn't all bad. Most journalism, after all, is by definition a fairly dull affair of facts and figures. I can't imagine writers for the new Wired News service are encouraged to "have fun with facts," or to pepper their dispatches with the obscenity du jour.

Those writers who rise above mere journalism will by and large have to figure out their own style, and their own ethics, for themselves — and the technology they use will have little to do with it. Some may find themselves inspired by Katz and Hale's Cult of the First Draft. Me, I'll be looking for the next Joan Didion. And I won't care if she's got an e-mail address or not.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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