Glenn Greenwald, elitist scourge of the modern media's cosy elitism, has been on a tear lately. He complains that the media focuses too much on trivial froth and not enough on serious issues. Why, he asks, does the media, ignore (relatively speaking) John Yoo's now-infamous (and rightly so) "Torture Memo" while devoting acres and hours of attention to Barack Obama going ten-pin bowling in Pennsylvania?
The crux of Greenwald's argument is:
And as Eric Boehlert documents, even Iraq -- that little five-year U.S. occupation with no end in sight -- has been virtually written out of the media narrative in favor of mindless, stupid, vapid chatter of the type referenced above. "The Clintons are Rich!!!!" will undoubtedly soon be at the top of this heap within a matter of a day or two.
"Media critic" Howie Kurtz in the Washington Post today devoted pages of his column to Obama's bowling and eating habits and how that shows he's not a regular guy but an Arrogant Elitist, compiling an endless string of similar chatter about this from Karl Rove, Maureen Dowd, Walter Shapiro and Ann Althouse. Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson devoted her whole column this week to arguing that, along with Wright, Obama's bowling was his biggest mistake, a "real doozy."
Obama's bowling has provided almost a full week of programming on MSNBC. Gail Collins, in The New York Times, today observed that Obama went bowling "with disastrous consequences." And, as always, they take their personality-based fixations from the Right, who have been promoting the Obama is an Arrogant, Exotic, Elitist Freak narrative for some time. In a typically cliched and slimy article, Time's Joe Klein this week explored what the headline called Obama's "Patriotism Problem," where we learn that "this is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what's wrong with America than what's right." He trotted it all out -- the bowling, the lapel pin, Obama's angry, America-hating wife, "his Islamic-sounding name."
Needless to say, these serious and accomplished political journalists are only focusing on these stupid and trivial matters because this is what the Regular Folk care about. They speak for the Regular People, and what the Regular People care about is not Iraq or the looming recession or health care or lobbyist control of our government or anything that would strain the brain of these reporters. What those nice little Regular Folk care about is whether Obama is Regular Folk just like them, whether he can bowl and wants to gorge himself with junk food.
As it happens I have some sympathy with Greenwald's views, but only some. Megan McArdle responded here and here, while Dan Drezner chipped in here. Both Megan and Dan (disclosure: Megan is a pal and I've had drinks with Dan) suggested that Greenwald was somewhat over-stating his case. Greenwald in turn suggested that Megan and Dan's arguments were excusing the media's failings and that this was because they'd both initially been in favour of the Iraq War. (I was too.) Hmmm.
Anyway, all this made me think of this anonymously-penned piece of Fleet Street wisdom.
Tickle the public, make 'em grin,
The more you tickle, the more you'll win;
Teach the public, you'll never get rich,
You'll live like a beggar and die in a ditch.
That judgement on jounalism, I should say, was delivered in the 19th century...
What do people want to read? Well, let's have a look...
at the British newspaper market which is rather more competitive than its American counterpart and is, consequently, well-stocked with newspapers catering to different tastes and sectors of the population. Lo and behold we discover that the tabloids still sell rather more copies each day than their supposedly more high-minded, intelligent counterparts in the broadsheet press. There's a reason for that: more people want what the Red Tops are offering than want the Times or the Daily Telegraph. People aren't actually hoodwinked into buying the tabs; it's what they want and enjoy.
A few years ago, Stephen Glover, one of the co-founders of The Independent
(which was, for a while, the best of the London dailies before its sad
decline) spent quite some time, as I recall, trying to raise money for
a new paper that was to be called The World (or something of
that sort). It was going to be the Indy Mark 2: deliberately, even
intimidatingly, high-brow, eschewing the froth and trivia that fills
the pages of other, supposedly serious, newspapers. Glover was appalled by what he, reasonably enough, saw as the quality press migrating south towards the middle of the market. Theoretically this should have left a gap at the top of the market for a new paper that would cater to a serious, intellectual elite.
If that project sounded too good to be true then perhaps that's because it was. At the time of writing we still await publication of the paper's first issue and, indeed, as far as I am aware, plans for the paper have been shelved. It's reasonable to suppose that this is because the numbers do not add up. The sort of journalism glover's venture wanted to provide is expensive and there is, however much one might wish it otherwise, a limited appetite for that sort of thing.
(The Independent is an interesting case study, incidentally: I suspect it would appeal to many of Greenwald's readers and perhaps to Greenwald too. It is hyper-partisan and now likes to think of itself as being as much as "Viewspaper" as a newspaper in the sense in which the paper was originally founded 20 years ago. Despite that, and despite out-flanking the Guardian on the left and embracing avehementally pro-green, anti-war viewpoint it's sales have stubbornly refused to rise significantly.)
Now it's possible that a web-only business model for a more elevated, intellectually serious form of journalism might one day be financially viable but that day has not arrived yet. And I'm not sure it ever will either. One reason for this is that on the web we - at least those of us who are eager consumers of news - are building our own newspapers, picking and choosing what we want to read and receiving daily delivery of what interest us to our own customised RSS readers. Aggregation sites such as RealClearPolitics and the newly launched Politics Home, play a part in this process too. We are, in this sense anyway, all editors now.
Equally, there are enough serious sites and publishers of serious news around the world that it's possible for a dedicated reader to draw on reporting from across the planet. This seems a very good thing, even if it also necessarily makes life more difficult for newspaper editors.
This evening for instance ITV News is leading, once again, with Mohammed al-Fayed and his reaction to the verdict of the inquest into his son and Princess Diana's death. This ghastly, squalid farrago, which has cost millions and wasted everyone's time without advancing the public's knowledge of anything surrounding the so-called case and has instead only fed the public's prurient appetite for salacious gossip, has dominated the news here all week.
In no way has any of this advanced the sum of human knowledge. But it is what the public are interested in. The poor old Daily Express was routinely mocked for splashing with any Diana-related nonsense but each time they did so, the paper significantly increased its circulation. That being so - and considering the trouble the Express has been in for 30 years - their editorial decisions make a certain amount of sense.
They do so because before they are anything else newspapers are a business. And like other businesses they need to turn a profit to survive, absent the generosity of a philanthropic proprietor. History records there have not been many such men. Even those papers owned by a Trust, such as The Guardian, survive in large part thanks to earnings from other interests. The Guardian and The Observer, like The Times and The Independent newspapers, lost money last year. That's why the Guardian Media Group sold 50% of its share in Auto Trader magazine last year, raising nearly £700m. This sort of cross-subsidy exists in the United States too: it's worth pondering the fate of the Washington Post if its parent company didn't enjoy fat profits from its Kaplan education business.
All of which is to say that any "public interest" role for newspapers is secondary to their need to be, one way or another, financially viable.
As I say, we build and edit our own newspapers these days via RSS
and blogs and all the rest of it. In one sense this further fragments
the market, but it's a mistake to suppose that there has ever been a mass market for up-market journalism. Back when it was a genuine paper of record (dutifully recording cabinet reshuffles in the Sudan for instance) The Times had a tiny circulation. That circulation was overtaken by the Telegraph when the latter realised that the middle-classes wanted something more than what the Times was offering. The Telegraph in turn was overtaken by the Daily Mail when it was founded in 1896 as a paper for the aspirant lower-middle and working classes.
One might argue, with some but not total, justification that the quality of mass-market journalism has declined since then. But it's also striking how much of early newspaper journalism remains fresh. Consider these News of the World headlines from 1854:
FRIGHTFUL TRAGEDY IN SOHO
HAMMERSMITH: GROSS OUTRAGE BY A GANG OF GYPSIES UPON TWO LADIES
MELANCHOLY SUICIDE OF A CITY SOLICITOR
LAMBETH: DISTRESSING CASE OF CHILD MURDER BY ITS MOTHER
THE ALLEGED POISONING OF A FAMILY AT BERMONDSEY
Or this rather modern-seeming tale:
SHOCKING CHARGE AGAINST ANOTHER ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST
At Haverfordwest Sessions, the Rev. Patrick Kelly was charged with having committed rape on Mary Sullivan, a girl of about 14 years of age... 'Mr Kelly bolted the door...He then went into the vestry room and called me in...he laid hold of me by the hand. I pulled my hand loose, and I went to run through the passage and he ran after me before I could have time to go down into the passage. The room was up two steps and before I could get down he pulled me back by the frock and I fell down.' (The witness here gave evidence which proved the capital offence.)
(I draw these examples, incidentally, from "Tickle the Public", Matthew Engel's terrific history of the British popular press.)
In other words: there has always been a market for sensationalism and juicy scandal that may fall some way short of advancing the public interest or holding politicians' feet to the fire.
Now as it happens I do think the media should be "wising up" as well as "dumbing down" or regressing to the comfort of the mid-market. (People are increasingly well-educated - well, theoretically at least, and well-travelled etc etc: there's some significance to the fact that the tabloids are losing readers at a faster rate than the broadsheets and so on).
But it has to be said that fewer and fewer people now read the newspaper to discover what's actually going on in the world. I wish more people did, but they don't. I wish there was a greater appetite for foreign news, for instance, but there isn't even if its presence in the paper is useful for flattering readers' own ideas about the sort of person they like to consider themselves.
Greenwald is a clever fellow, but I'm not sure he entirely understands how difficult it is to edit a newspaper successfully. It's never been especially easy, of course, which is one reason why even most journalists can only name a couple of handfuls of great editors from the past. But there are good grounds for thinking the job epecially difficult these days. It used to be that you could instruct your journalists to write "for the man on the Sheffield omnibus" or the wife, dutifully minding the children at home while her husband takes the train in to the city and work. Such exercises could only take an editor and his staff so far, but provided the editor had a sufficient dose of empathy and imagination, they helped build a structure that gave newspapers a coherence.
No such structure exists today. Who is your imagined reader? In the age of niche the newspaper as universal source of information and entertainment is itself an increasingly out-of-date concept. How can one size fit all? Increasingly it can't, hence the haemorraging of readers and, in time, advertisers. Hence the endless tinkering, the addition of new supplements and sections, the constant redesigns to "fresh-up" the product, the effort to throw everything and anything at the reader, from gardening to Sudoku in a ceaseless effort to give everyone something, anything that they might find interesting or useful to read.
If all this is true in Britain, it's especially the case in the United States where the Cult of Objectivity and the Horror of Fun have helped squeeze the life out of newspapers that should be champions of their city-state. Lacking competition, many American newspapers find themselves trying to be all things to all men. Is it any surprise that this is a philosophy out of step with the general march of society towards individualism and specialisation? American newspapers, especially those in cities where they're the only player in town, are rather like old-fashioned conglomerates with interests ad properties in a couple of dozen different industrial sectors. Those companies have died; now it is, alas, the newspapers' turn.
Of course in another sense British and American newspapers have swapped positions. For much of the 19th century it was the Americans who were brash, boisterous and unfettered and the British who were producing stuffy, turgid, ghastly newspapers. The American press was once much freer than it is now - freer that is in the sense that it was not weighed down by responsibility or the idea that it served some mythical, mystical higher purpose than to make money and entertain the public while doing so. In Britain newspapers were more expensive and beyond the reach of the working classes. Typically, when Stamp Duty on newspapers was finally abolished, Gladstone argued in favour of the measure on the grounds that it would help newspapers educate the public. That's just the sort of thing the Annenberg Center or the Columbia Journalism Review might say.
As it is, however, readers tend to get the newspapers that, in the end, they actually want. There are other elements that have contributed to the crisis in confidence apparet amongst ink-stained folk but that, perhaps, is a post for another time and another day.