the way it was…
of a dark, impoverished era.
The other day, while trying desperately to fulfill
my sacred oath to be the one person in America
that does not watch any coverage of the Scott Peterson news porno, I was forced to watch the “Evening News” rather
than cable news. Sure, I could have watched the Weather Channel or the endless
Caribbean street festival that airs on Cambridge Community Television,
but I needs my news.
So I watched what once had been the news –network
news, and it was like seeing an old friend for the first time in years –an old friend that had gotten fat, old, ugly
and toothless. Then after a moment of shock, I remembered that my old friend
had always been ugly, but I had just been used to it before.
The tectonic change that has occurred in the media
during the last few decades has been so gradual that it is easy to overlook its degree, until you look back at the distant
horizon and realize just how far we have come. Just thirty years ago, there was
no cable, no internet, no satellite service. Talk radio consisted of Paul Harvey
and the farm report. In a nation of hundreds of millions, everyone received their news and commentary from just one three-headed source: ABC-CBS-NBC.
Back then, we all would sit there for the one hour
a day that we were rationed news and listen to the same stories. If you wanted
the extended-play version of these carefully selected news nuggets, you could buy a paper, which would give you the same viewpoint,
but extra words. And after the national news, you could watch the local news,
where the second string would put on a less-professional and less-consequential version of the national show, like children
playing house at a toy stove.
In between the all-important one-hour national indoctrination
sessions, America’s elite newsrooms had 23 hours to
decide what you needed to know next and how you should best be told it. That’s
the way it was -for one brief, sad moment of American history. The broadcast
era of controlled national debate began towards the end of the age of radio and bloomed into homogeneous monotone with the
rise of TV. For those of us born into that world it all seemed perfectly normal,
but it was an exceptional time.
had been founded in an age of lone pamphleteers and dueling newspapers. Every
town and movement had its own voices, and the closest thing to national news came in infrequent periodicals. Debate and news dissemination was a model of diversity –the kind that actually counts: diversity
of thought. Newspapers actually acted as advocates for different candidates and causes. The Civil War, for example, was
fought in print, as well as in the field. In fact, for most of our History, America’s
national debates took place in the Press, not between
the Press and America.
Then, through an accident of technology, America’s
myriad voices were drowned out by the power of network broadcasts. Diverse accents,
diverse cultures, diverse politics -all began to be homogenized by the influential drone of the Big Three. There was –inevitably- no room for most voices in America’s
news hour. But technology rarely presents anyone with a stable franchise and,
little by little, changes began to mount. First came Cable news, which at the
onset differed from the networks only in format and frequency.
But then more outlets and more formats entered the
fray, until today –for the first time in fifty years- one can actually find both diversity of viewpoint and (just occasionally)
different stories altogether at various outlets. Now the internet has created
a world of endless outlets and inexpensive production of content. The ideas available
for dissemination are -once again- drawn from the whole spectrum of public opinion.
Much has been made of this oft-trumpeted “fragmentation” of the media.
The Old Guard sees it as unwelcome and new, a corrupting influence that has caused a loss of decorum and order.
But there is nothing new at all about our emerging
situation (other than the technology itself). We are just getting back to the
sort of real competition and choice in the marketplace of ideas that we enjoyed for most of our History. We are not entering a strange and aberrant time, we are leaving one.
Having now re-entered a new age, it is staggering to look back on the age of the information cartel and recall just
how odd the whole thing really was. Hopefully, we will never be afflicted with
such a poverty of voices again.
The “new media” is not the upheaval it
has been declared to be, it is a return to normalcy.