by J.D. Tuccille
November 22, 1996
Times Change, the Media Won’t
I seem to have a lot more free time on my hands these days to devote to Full Automatic. More time, that is, since the New York Daily News canceled my Net Watchman column.
“Canceled your column?” I hear you say. “But we though that Tooch had gone legit!”
Well, I’m still drawing a paycheck from the Daily News, but while that great media machine may not have left my musings entirely still-born, they were firmly trussed and tossed in a pond at a tender age — all for the crime of “making waves.”
“Making wave?” I hear you ask. “What evils could Tooch have visited upon the Fourth Estate?”
I wish I had a better story to tell, but the controversial columns were all moderately worded pieces about the impact of the Internet (all of them available on this site for your perusal). The problem is that even these diluted doses of opinion strayed beyond the unspoken borders of the inch-wide intellectual space that the mainstream American media has deemed worthy of respect.
There has long been something cloying about the U.S. media, dating, I believe, from the “professionalization” of the industry. There’s a sanctimonious sense of impartial “truth,” of wisdom received and dispensed from on-high by trained specialists who spent a lot of money on grad school to learn how to interview people and tell us what they said.
Across the spectrum of the media (with a few noteworthy exceptions) certain opinions and behaviors are predictably treated as respectable and mainstream, others — without any inquiry into their validity — are relegated to the borderlands of civilized society. It takes little newswatching to begin to cringe at the frequent use of the words “fringe,” “cult,” and “extreme.”
That’s not to say that there was ever a golden age of perfect, impartial journalism. Quite the contrary — journals and journalists of days past made no attempt to hide their opinions. Notoriously, the Hearst papers at the end of the last century beat the drums for war with Spain. Civil War-era papers waged rhetorical combat over the propriety of holding the Union together by force.
But that’s just it — there was no pretense. Well into this century, some American newspapers were openly Democrat, others Republican, a few Socialist, and if you read German, well, “Deutscheland, Deutscheland uber alles” to you, too. All of those papers told you what was going on, but they differed on why and what it means. Readers bought their favorite papers and picked up others (or banned others from the house) for good measure.
Modern media, however, has come to mistake a constrained range of opinion for “objective journalism” — so much so that a fuss was raised when Rupert Murdoch announced that in terms of politics, his new Fox News Channel would be positioned an inch right of center. Never mind that the bulk of journalists crowd a space between the center and an inch or two center-left. That overpopulated space is now taken to be the only legitimate voice of American journalism — hell, the only legitimate voice of America.
And the media did this all by itself, without prodding from legislators or regulators.
So the wild popularity of, first, talk radio, and then the Internet should come as no surprise, nor should the traditional media’s uneasy relationship with the new competition. Opinions and people previously tagged as “extreme,” “fringe,” and “cult” now can be found as easily as CNN (or, indeed, the New York Daily News). The news media’s gatekeeper role is no longer as unassailable as it once was. The very fact that the column killed by the Daily News is self-published on this site stands as evidence.
Without significant effort, I can call up online commercial media in countries around the globe that offer, as a matter of course, points of view considered beyond the pale by the Washington Post. I can access Web sites run by libertarians, by communists, by Birchites and tree-hugging Earth Firsters. Few of the “amateur” Web sites have yet coalesced into organized opposition to the old media, but it’s only a matter of time before personal Web sites evolve into electronic magazines and then draw the interest and investment to metamorph into at least semi-serious media operations.
But that makes Net Watchman’s cancellation that much sadder — and not just sadder for me, now that my employment situation is a tad more tenuous than it was a short while ago. No, it’s sadder for the Daily News since the column’s presence on the paper’s Web site was a small acknowledgment that the world has changed and that the new media can’t be treated in the same filtered and hermetically sealed way as the old. That other ideas are out there and will be heard.
In canceling Net Watchman, the Daily News management fought a rearguard action for the old regime. And though I got caught in the crossfire (Medic!), it’s a battle that they can’t win.
Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.
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Copyright (c) 1996 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.