September 2007 -- The twentieth century was the high point of mass culture—or “the overculture” as some call it. Any culture that could produce Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Honeymooners can’t be all bad.
But eventually, the connection between media elites and their audiences began to fracture. Though apocryphal, the line frequently attributed to Pauline Kael of the New Yorker in 1972 sums up the growing chasm between the overculture—particularly the media—and its audience: “I don’t know how Nixon won. No one I know voted for him.”
Just as the Big Three car manufacturers, with a once-monolithic hold on American consumers, seemed unaware that the public wanted a wider choice of cars (until Japan listened and responded), Pauline Kael’s in-crowd of coastal elites has, if anything, become even more clueless and resistant to emerging changes in the culture and dissemination of information.
How clueless? In 2004, Jonathan Klein, the former executive vice president of CBS News, described blogging as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.” Last May, Time-Warner CEO Richard Parsons was quoted as saying, “The Googles of the world, they are the Custer of the modern world. We are the Sioux nation. They will lose this war if they go to war. The notion that the new kids on the block have taken over is a false notion.”
Just how did the mainstream media (“MSM”) become so monolithic and unresponsive in the first place? And how is the rise of “Weblogs” helping to establish a new, more “fair and balanced” form of journalism?
The Birth of “Objective Media”
Prior to the 1920s, American newspapers and pamphleteers had a long, diverse history of vigorous, partisan debate. Which is why there are still newspapers with names like the Springfield Democrat and Shelbyville Republican.
The broadcast industry’s most urgent priority became “don’t rock the boat.”
That began to change with the rise of competition from the broadcast media. In the 1920s, because radio frequencies were finite, their allocation became heavily regulated by the federal government. As Shannon Love of the classically liberal Chicago Boyz
economics blog explains, the federal government “took the radio spectrum, and instead of auctioning it off like land, essentially socialized it. And then they made the distribution of the broadcast spectrum basically a political decision.”
That, combined later with the FCC’s so-called “Fairness Doctrine—which required broadcasting networks to give “equal time” to opposing viewpoints—compelled broadcasters to maintain at least a veneer of impartiality in order to get and keep their licenses. A de facto political compromise was reached, Love says, “that the broadcast news would not be political—it would be objective and nonpartisan, was basically the idea. And then that carried over from radio to TV,” and eventually to print media. (That conceit continues to this day, as the media toss around words like “unbiased” and “objective” as easily as Dan Rather tosses off hoary, made-up Texas-isms.)
Completely dependent on the federal government, the broadcast industry’s most urgent priority became “don’t rock the boat.” And aping their broadcast competitors, newspapers began to adopt the mantle of impartiality, as well. A mass media that increasingly eschewed vibrant political debate helped FDR win four presidential elections handily, and Ike’s refusal to dismantle the New Deal in the 1950s only perpetuated its soft socialism. That era’s pervasive desire for consensus was symbolized by the ubiquitous Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his centrist politics.
By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networks’ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaper’s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).
Up until the Reagan years, Love says, “definitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.” These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed “Gray Lady” largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, “If the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, they’d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.”
Love calls this “the Parliament of Clocks”: creating the illusion of truth or accuracy by force of consensus. “Really, the only way that consumers can tell that they’re getting accurate information is to check another media source,” Love says. “And unfortunately, that creates an incentive for the media sources to all agree on the same story.”
De-massifying the Mass Media
Journalism by consensus remained essentially unchallenged until President Ronald Reagan—arguably the most media-savvy president in American history—repealed the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987. That opened the door for “talk radio.”
AM radio had been considered largely obsolete thanks to clear, stereophonic FM. But then along came Rush Limbaugh. Having been largely ignored by and shut out of other media, conservatives began to follow his example, and soon came to dominate AM talk radio. Politically, the consequences were soon far-reaching; in fact, many credit Limbaugh’s persuasive presence for the GOP’s congressional triumph in 1994.
But talk radio was not the only challenger to the entrenched MSM. Also in 1994, a program called Mosaic Netscape 0.9 was released. This allowed personal computer owners to access the then-nascent World Wide Web—the graphical interface riding atop the Internet, which since its inception in 1969 had been predominantly the province of the military and academics. And that has opened up a whole new world of journalistic competition.
An increasingly lethargic, dinosaur media mocked the Web’s biggest players and was slow to adopt its technology.
From the outset, the mainstream media’s relationship to the Web has been a curious love-hate thing—often, just a hate thing. For example, when Matt Drudge became the new medium’s first journalistic superstar in 1997, he was crucified by the elite media. You see, despite making their living reporting news, journalists, by and large, are remarkably cynical toward any innovation. Just as Detroit failed to notice the growing influence of Japan’s auto industry until the lights went out in the 1970s, newspapers paid little attention to what the media of the future would look like, despite accurate predictions of electronic news as early as the mid-1960s by futurists such as Alvin Toffler and Arthur C. Clarke.
So, by the late 1990s, an increasingly lethargic, dinosaur media, which mocked the Web’s biggest players and was slow to adopt its technology, had created an opening for those willing to experiment—particularly conservatives, who had felt unrepresented by the media even before Spiro Agnew’s famous 1970 “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech. Additionally, during that same period, liberals were moving to the left of then–President Bill Clinton, and they too felt underserved by a media that needed to at least maintain the pretense of centrism.
Birth of the Blogs
Around that time, a few journalists of varying ideologies—including Virginia Postrel, then editor of the libertarian Reason magazine; “New Democrat” Mickey Kaus; former liberal New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan; and center-right James Lileks of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune—began building on Matt Drudge’s example and launched their own self-published “e-zines”.
Simultaneously, some online pioneers began to type their daily thoughts onto Web pages specially designed for quick and easy updating. The earliest “Weblogs” were online diaries, hence their name. But eventually, several professional journalists and pundits found that these “blogs,” as they came to be known, could be used for much more than recording stray thoughts about trips to the shopping mall or the latest episode of The X-Files. In August 2001, a University of Tennessee law professor, Glenn Reynolds, began using Blogger.com’s software to self-publish his own links to and opinions about the news. Calling his blog InstaPundit, Reynolds figured he’d get a couple of hundred academic readers.
But then came September 11th.
During that awful, endless day, millions of Americans desperate for information found that the servers for most major news websites, such as those of CNN and the New York Times, had crashed due to the sheer numbers of online visitors. Getting little more than error messages from these elite news sites, many started surfing alternative Web sources. Blogs and e-zines, such as Reynolds and Postrel’s, linked to smaller newspapers whose servers were still functioning, and they relayed whatever scant information was being offered by television and radio. These early blogs drew enormous traffic on that day—and many of their readers remained afterwards, during 2001’s tense autumn.
It was during this period that television and newspapers earned their well-deserved sobriquet as “the legacy media.” Consensus liberalism began to color their descriptions of America’s early efforts to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as they reverted to “quagmire”-laced language straight out of Walter Cronkite and David Halberstam’s salad days in the late 1960s. In contrast, the bloggers’ tone was a breath of fresh air to those who had grown accustomed to—not to mention bored stiff by—the groupthink of the “Parliament of Clocks.”
Today, there are some 87 million blogs—an endlessly and rapidly growing number.
Soon, there was a blog for every interest, bias, and worldview. But this development put the old media in something of a bind. On the one hand, the left had been preaching endlessly about the need for “diversity.” Well, here it was; but just as they had assaulted Matt Drudge a few years earlier, the mainstream media now attacked these upstart bloggers with a vengeance. As journalists became increasingly scared of the new upstarts, epithets about “navel gazers” and “amateur hour” began to pour out of newspaper op-ed columns. And though reporters claimed to be for the little guy, once that little guy started to talk back to them, they became more defensively elitist and guild-oriented than ever.
Glenn Reynolds’ quick rise to prominence helped to foster a hospitable environment for new bloggers. His background in DIY music may have been a factor: Punk and new-wave music, plus the home-recording boom of the early 1980s, encouraged an “Anybody can do this” attitude, a spirit that Reynolds carried into the emerging “Blogosphere.” In 2002, he published a list of well over two hundred blogs that claimed to be directly inspired by his own. That list has grown exponentially since.
As has the size of the Blogosphere as a whole. In 2004, I estimated that there were a few million blogs. Today, the blog search engine Technorati.com claims to track some 87 million blogs—an endlessly and rapidly growing number.
Death of the Overculture
The ever-expanding number of blogs has helped to neutralize much of the major media’s attempts to influence culture unilaterally and from the top down. As a result, says James Lileks, “we don’t have an overculture anymore.” He adds that “people are no longer having to stifle their own interests in order to absorb mass culture. In the old days, they used to create their own communities by very low-tech means: fanzines, Star Trek convention clubs, things like that. But now, you can find like-minded individuals all over the place, and half of them seem to be creating content in the exact genre that you like.”
An idiosyncrasy of many blogs is that they create spontaneous communities by linking and riffing off each other—occasionally, even linking to those outside their ideology or interests. Compare that attitude of cooperation to traditional journalism. For decades, American newspapers have practiced guild socialism, adhering to the belief that a long tenure in journalism school was required before working for a newspaper. They’ve tried to give those working in a formerly blue-collar industry the appearance of having the vision of an anointed elite (to paraphrase the title of a classic book by Thomas Sowell).
In contrast, the Blogosphere provides avenues for both apprenticeship and endless experimentation. Bloggers openly modify, amplify, and correct each other (and often themselves). While many have only small but loyal readerships, linking creates vast online networking opportunities. A few major blogs attract in excess of 150,000 readers a day; and when one of those mega-blogs links to a tiny niche blog, 150,000 new readers are exposed to a fresh voice and a new topic. By comparison, the daily viewers of cable TV’s CNN, who number only about 400,000, see the same faces and hear the same perspectives each day.
Because Internet bandwidth is so cheap when compared with the enormous capital investments required to own a newspaper or television station, it’s possible for a blogger to experiment radically with new technologies as they come along, including burgeoning multimedia formats. It’s the advantage that the flea has over the elephant: Though the elephant may be mighty, he’s awfully slow. As Alvin Toffler once told me, “The flea is fast. The flea is fleet. . .that’s the paradox: The more power you have, the less free you are to exercise it.”
One trend that virtually no newspaper foresaw was the emergence of sites like Craigslist.com and eBay, which are pulling their classified-ad business right out from under them. Classified-ad revenue traditionally has generated a significant portion of newspapers’ profits, and as that income shrinks, so does the budget to pay for journalists. Traditional “dead tree” publishers, burdened with high start-up and operating costs, are seeing online competitors dramatically cut into a big profit center.
In short, blog publishing is not only much quicker and more flexible than mainstream media publishing, but infinitely cheaper.
Where Do Blogs Go from Here?
In 2004, the mainstream media gave us “RatherGate” and other examples of blatant partisanship. The 2008 presidential election will provide other tests for the legacy media and their putative successors. Will there be another RatherGate? Perhaps not, because the current Republican candidates don’t seem to generate the same feverish media anger that President Bush did. But there will be plenty of other examples of partisanship, as the Big Media’s remaining claims to “objectivity” ring increasingly hollow.
Blogs exist partly in reaction to a mainstream media that is lobotomized by political correctness.
Most likely, the Blogosphere will continue to consolidate. While plenty of new one-man sites will crop up, group blogs, many resembling small magazines, will continue to flourish and gain prominence—as will sites that blend blogs and discussion forums. Expect more multimedia blogs, such as Michelle Malkin’s Hot Air, which combines slick, broadcast-quality daily videos with plenty of traditional blogging. Or England’s revolutionary 18 Doughty Street website, which combines hours of live, nightly, C-Span-style video chat shows with blogging. Or Pajamas Media, which also offers a mix of audio, video, and text blogging, in both short, hit-and-run and long-form styles. Pajamas is also one of a handful of blog consortiums that pays its contributors. Expect that trend to grow as well.
Since blogs exist partly in reaction to a mainstream media that seems increasingly lobotomized by political correctness, expect new blogs to pop up in reaction to the latest liberal fads and follies. For example, because a pro-Israel tone is anathema at the New York Times and virtually all wire services, Little Green Footballs has become a clearinghouse for news on the Middle East. Zombietime.com, launched by a frequent commenter at LGF,runs photos of leftwing protestors in the San Francisco area that no newspaper or TV network (except for Fox News, of course) would touch.
And what of Big Media itself? Glenn Reynolds says, “About five years ago, I did a piece for Tech Central Station in which I wrote that while blogs are starting to report more hard news, big media is getting ‘bloggier.’ That seems to hold up pretty well, and I think we’ll see more of that.”
Indeed, many newspapers have added blog elements to their websites, typically using their own in-house journalists. The blog format allows them to quickly upload content without worrying about space requirements. And, for many journalists, it provides an outlet for their biases, while their traditional articles remain more-or-less, sorta-kinda objective.
Reynolds isn’t so sure that blogging is a smart idea for newspapers, however. “As I keep saying over and over again, the ‘killer app’ for Big Media is hard news, accurately reported. That seems like something that they resist. It’s almost like their position is that they didn’t go into the news business to report facts accurately,” he chuckles; “that’s boring!”
Speaking of boring, most newspaper blogs are a bit on the dull side compared with the freewheeling, independent bloggers who don’t have a Big Journalism pedigree. The publishers of most newspaper blogs have confused form with content; rare is the paper that has the equivalent of a James Lileks on its payroll to oversee in-house blogging.
At this writing, the Blogosphere and conservative talk radio are being credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) with the recent defeat of “immigration reform” legislation. In retaliation, will Congress attempt to regulate blogs (and talk radio) out of existence with some sort of mega-version of the Fairness Doctrine? “I think they’ll try,” Reynolds says. “How much of it is sort of a brush-back pitch—which I think will be counterproductive if that’s the intent—and how much of it is a serious effort, I’m really not sure.”
If that does happen, Reynolds believes we can expect “the creation of quote-‘fair’-unquote rightwing opinion networks that will do the kind of slant that left networks always did.” He cites the National Rifle Association’s website
as an example; indeed, the NRA, under decades of attack from the left, has been a model of creative Web use, combining blogging, Internet video, and other forms of multimedia content.
That’s the leveling power of blogs.
Big Media isn’t going away. They still generate enormous sums of advertising revenue, despite a declining—and rapidly aging—audience. But fortunately, information alternatives are becoming increasingly available. The forms of blogging will become increasingly diversified, too, to the point where the words “blogs” and “blogging” soon may become passé.
But whatever its future form, the idea and ideal of individual self-publishing—something that our pamphleteer-era Founding Fathers would instantly understand and enthusiastically applaud—is safely here to stay.