Sarah Palin and the death of news

To people of a certain age, news appears to be the natural packaging for important types of information.  Equally natural, to this group, is the journalistic style, with its superficialities, repetitions, omissions, stereotypes, and unwillingness to cite sources.  In this manner they expect to learn of political developments, spectacular murders, destructive hurricanes.  How else could it be done?

News appears natural to those no longer young because it has ruled over public discussion for three or four generations — an eternity to the markeplace.  My father and grandfather consumed news, and so did I for much of my life.  But in fact there is nothing particularly natural, much less eternal, about the news:  it’s a business model which, like dueling among gentlemen, belongs to a specific moment in history.

Before there was news, elites traded all the information they needed in charming and discreet ways.  They posted and received an extraordinary amount of letters — the word “correspondent” harks back to this activity — and read books prolifically.  Broadsheets and dailies existed, but they presented examples of oratory and argumentation rather than novelty.  Important people thus exchanged facts and opinions.  The rest of the population was illiterate, or working too hard to care.

With the spread of literacy and improvements in printing technology, a golden business opportunity arose:  selling industrially packaged information to the masses, thus offering access to an elite luxury.  The first mass circulation newspapers changed the shape of information into arbitrary categories — for example, “news,” “opinion,” and “entertainment” — but they always moved to the front those events and commentaries of interest to powerful people.  It’s likely that sales were driven by articles on sports and movie stars, but politics, the sport and entertainment of the elites, always retained pride of place.

Journalists became the intermediaries between politicians and the mass electorate.  Even today, news are rarely about events, but about whatever powerful people judge to be of interest or importance.  Thus a NYT report on Hurricane Ike hastens to inform us what Texas “officials,” including the governor, opine on the subject.  A WaPo story on bombings in New Delhi immediately moves to what the Indian Home Secretary has to say about the bombers.  The proximity to fame and power is seductive.  It confuses journalists into thinking they too belong to the elite.

That brings me to my subject:  the effect of Sarah Palin’s nomination on the news media.  Palin exudes ordinariness in her family life and hobbies.  She somehow failed to attend an elite university.  Her ideas seemed backward to the bicoastal elites.  She is now striving for high office without being known by them.  Mass news producers faced a choice:  explain this person, or make her go away.

The feminist elites, for reasons I have already explored, wanted her gone in the worst way.  Journalists, who measure importance by what such elites believe, made their decision, and went on the attack.

They failed for reasons that are apparent to any disinterested observer:  objectively, nothing in Palin’s background disqualifies her for the vice-presidency.  To the news media, however, the assault on Palin wasn’t about her qualifications but about their power.  And the power of the news — based on newsmakers’ proximity to presidents and ability to reach mass audiences — is flickering and dying out.

The moment for industrially packaged information is over.  It ended with the advent of the digital age, which flooded the market with information and lowered its value nearly to zero.  This has dismayed everyone in a position of authority — but it has been a disaster for those who profited greatly from selling the stuff.  Newspaper subscriptions are down everywhere.  All are cutting news staff, many have gone out of business.  Newspaper stocks have crashed.  In the digital environment, the news business model no longer makes sense.  My son, the Sophistpundit, doesn’t consume news, nor does most of his generation.

Worse still, in this environment users of information have become producers.  Flaws in news reporting are jumped on and publicized.  Dan Rather, direct heir to the heroic Edward R. Murrows and the sainted Walter Cronkite, was sent into early retirement by an upstart blog called Little Green Footballs.  Far more people go to YouTube than watch the evening news.  With the proliferation of channels, fewer watch any given one, including the old networks.  The audience for MSNBC probably consists of the family and friends of its anchorpersons.

The mortal agony of the news business places in doubt the newsmakers’ claim to be part of the inner circle.  For the media, the assault on Palin thus carried the highest possible stakes:  it was both business and personal.  This explains the condescension, outrage, and growing panic — all widely observed and commented upon — when Palin not only survived the attack without difficulty, but also exploited it to her advantage.

News people have always had their pet politicians and their enemies lists.  But in their treatment of Palin, they appear to have abandoned even the pretense of objectivity and professionalism, and taken sides in a presidential election.  The political consequences so far have been exactly the opposite of what they intended.

More importantly from a business perspective, they have abandoned key aspects of the news “brand,” which in the mind of their remaining audience separates them from bloggers’ drivel.  They have become shouters rather than reporters, hit men rather than journalists.

And after taking such desperate chances, newsmakers have been shown to be powerless.  In fact, they have helped make Palin into something of a political star.  The old elites are unhappy with their performance, and can be relied on to criticize it.  This will ensure the shouting will only get louder until election day.  This, in turn, will speed up the audience hemorrhage, possibly in a significant way.  The last of the gray-headed faithful still come expecting Walter Lippmann and Walter Cronkite, but get Maureen Dowd and Katie Couric instead.

A tipping point can’t be far in the future.


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