"In the end, you get the audience you deserve."
-- Prince Rogers Nelson
"Gary Webb is dead."
-- John M. Deutsch
Deutsch didn't actually say that, but I couldn't resist. At my lunch the other day, Danziger said several things, just snatching ideas right out of my head. I don't have conversations like that every day. But he blamed Woodward and Bernstein for the significant problem with journalism today. It's exactly what I think. Nobody wants to report what's going on, they want to get to the point at which they can investigate their way into a book deal. Another way of thinking about it, is that any journalist that doesn't call himself a newspaperman is a hack author trolling reality to make up for his lack of imagination. And the sad fact is that John Sandford's got them beat.
The problem with the 20th century is that we've got too many literate people, and journalism dying is just a symptom of the fact that we don't know what to do with that many working minds. The web will fix that, but I digress, sorta.
If you recall, Gary Webb was the investigative, excuse me, prizewinning investigative journalist and author of the controversial book, Dark Alliance. You see there's a problem with Gary Webb. He's dead. Now I happen to be one of those people who believe that there are no coincidences. People are too curious, too powerful and they have too much money to leave you alone if you're interesting, and Gary Webb, before he died, became very interesting. He became very interesting to perhaps the wrong kind of people - which is to say the kind of people who have too much familiarity with world history to care about the life of a journalist. I probably say it too much, but I have a good idea what a spy is like and the level of competency required to handle the sort of information and disinformation that really matters in this world. There's no way that the overwhelming majority of journalists measure up, much less merit the market share of the world's burgeoning literate population.
A story that sticks in my head is this one entitled Knowledge is Pain:
G. Gordon Liddy was playing the role of a corrupted colonel who shipped drugs or something dastardly in Vietnam. He has managed to keep the story under wraps until a crusading journalist (who must have inspired Michael Moore) discovered the awful truth. This journalist wore shorts and sandals, was scruffy as an old mutt and doggedly pursued every bit of muck he could rake on Liddy's character. He always suspected something but never really knew anything and so he manufactured alternate realities until he stumbled upon the real truth. He badgered witnesses who wouldn't fess up; he couldn't understand why the Vietnamese didn't want to let the world know.
In classic style, Liddy confronts the journalist and delivers the monologue before pulling the trigger. He says that he was once ideologically fanatic as the journalist was, but that living in Asia had taught him a lesson that Americans rarely learn. Westerners believe, quoth Liddy, that the truth will set you free. Au contraire (please translate that into Mandarin, ed), the truth is a great burden that serves no man. The truth only brings suffering and pain. Liddy then provided the lead exclamation point to that sentence at about 1200 feet per second into the abdomen of the newly enlightened journalist, who presumably died wiser than he ever lived.
The truth serves no man. It only brings suffering and pain to those who discover it, because possession of the whole truth puts one at odds with the rest of humanity which is suffering an illusion. Humanity's illusion, when confronted, will crush the amateur. And so hack authors are invited, hell bribed, by the likes of the Pulitzers to develop the intestinal fortitude to afflict the comfortable, presumed guilty until blessed by the media.
Understand our limits. We are evolutionarily limited in our ability to improve greatly upon the information soup we swim in. I actually have a better metaphor that deals with time travel, but more on that later. My point is that there is only so much that so many of us can understand and absorb all at once, and only so much action that can be driven by mass consciousness, and mass media is now discovering that it is inherently incapable of sustaining that mass consciousness. Except it keeps accelerating these hacks into media stardom - every day trying to make the next Cronkite, the next Woodward, the next Oprah.
So what we are witnessing now in the collapse of the mainstream media is, in my view, the failure of the news business to learn to organize itself in some way other than a propaganda organization or star machine. New media does not have that burden - it doesn't presume to need or sustain a mass audience or a massive burden of the aims of the Fourth Estate. The new media recognizes that the literate few are whom they are and are not necessarily bound to move the nation. I suspect and hope that media gets small - that newspapers return to their roots as small partisan affairs with no pretensions of being capable of changing the conscience of the nation or of the world. I think that what will inevitably emerge will be better, both more modest and more accurate, and less likely to attract crusaders.