Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
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 L.A. Times online twice (the night before and that morning). The actual paper was already older than Methuselah in her eyes.
In a new piece -- "Is the Press Too Big to Fail?" -- media critic Todd Gitlin offers a timely 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 offers a little survey of American print journalism on the way down, without a hint of romance in sight.
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