One thing you can say for the first wave of blogs: ubiquitious self-publishing was an unintended cure for the tendency of editors or publishers in old-media publications to seize the microphone for their own indulgence. A hundred thousand commenters up on their soapboxes has helped to expose insipid or banal old-media editorializing for what it is, and raised the bar for what counts as a stylistically distinctive column or an original perspective.
At least, that’s what I keep hoping will happen. Waiting for old-media outlets to use the current information culture to find fresh voices and gifted stylists is a bit like watching a drowning man scorn a bunch of float cushions in order to clutch to an anvil. The major newspapers stick to columnists who comfortingly echo the old op-ed culture of forty years ago (or who were writers in the op-ed culture of forty years ago): the arguments, the analysis, the riffs are all as predictable and narrow as Marmaduke or The Family Circus on the comics pages. It’s like deciding to hop on a Viking’s funeral boat while thinking it’s a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean.
I know: speaking of tired riffs, this is one of mine. But I was triggered off this morning listening to a commentary by the local NPR station’s commenter, who was hired last year. Is he a fresh new voice? No, he’s a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer named Chris Satullo. Does he have a stylistically distinctive voice or some interesting new angles on public debates? No, almost all of his opinions are generic and tired. Occasionally on local or state politics he’s able to leverage what he knows about the players and the issues into something marginally more interesting. Otherwise, though, it just drives me nuts that a media organization which is dealing with a changing information landscape decides that the best way to respond is by putting the aural equivalent of lukewarm Wheatena on the airwaves. Maybe that’s what the average NPR listener likes, I suppose, but that’s the Marmaduke Syndrome in action: stick with your shrinking audience of smugly complacent white suburbanites right until you cross the event horizon into an endless void.
Satullo’s latest commentary on information technology is, I suppose, meant to anticipate this objection by arguing that the old way of doing things was better. It’s certainly yawn-inducing as an opinion coming from someone with more than two decades of newspaper experience: reading it is like spotting the 3,545th cat in Katzenstein holding up the tail of the cat in front of him (for those of you who read your Dr. Seuss). Whether you want it in short or long form, you can find pretty much the same opinion from a whole host of old-media defenders, ad nauseum.
As an accidental (or so I assume) self-parody, on the other hand, the column has some potential. Satullo takes note of new research suggesting that multi-taskers are less efficient at completing a job and end up knowing less than people who focus tightly on a single task or learning one thing at a time. That research has struck me as credible. Satullo then argues that this is a regression back to the early stages of human evolution, leaving behind some kind of cognitive progress we achieved in between one million years ago and the first email being sent. Well, I’m sure there’s some bowdlerized bit of evo-psych out there that invites that jump. But this is the very problem that Satullo complains about and tries to pin on current information technology, the careless use of poorly digested factoids to flatter your existing prejudices.
The alternative isn’t to get a Ph.D in cognitive science and insist that radio commentaries read like monographs. The alternative is to ask more unsettling kinds of skeptical questions that require no special knowledge to compose but may require a bit of investigation to answer.
Is it true, for example, that the American media environment of 1960 or 1980 was more truthful, that lies in the public sphere were pervasively exposed by journalists and experts? Would we be able to trust experts and journalists to selflessly serve the public interest now if only it were not for Wikipedia, Google and all that digital rot subverting the establishment? Really? You really want to say that there were fewer lies in public life in 1955 or 1975? That when we let experts go about their business undogged by bloggers and online rumors, human progress marched on unimpeded?
Or if you really want to go into more interesting territory, what is knowledge, anyway? What made us more knowledgeable as a society, a world, a species? When did that happen and why? What has come of being more knowledgeable, and what do we stand to lose? Those questions don’t take you back to the East African savannah a million years ago: they take you back to the late 19th Century, or to the late 18th Century, or to the Renaissance, or to medieval monasteries, or other more intricate destinations that don’t allow for dully banal answers.
If you’ve got a bit of guts, tell me what’s going to happen in the near-term future if the digital age goes on as it has so far. Make some predictions, put yourself on the line. Past media hysterics have a pretty low batting average when it comes to doomsaying. Violence on TV was supposedly making future generations of Americans progressively more and more violent, but when heavy TV viewers came of age, violent crime rates started dropping and continued to drop even as the content of television became more violent.
Another original direction: tell me how you think things could be different than they are. If you’re just going to complain about the follies of your fellow humans, then the stylistic bar is really set high: you better be Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken or at the least, Molly Ivins. Because the only thing that kind of complaint could possibly have going for it is to be entertaining. Otherwise, if you’re serious about the criticism? Show me the roadmap to a different future. Don’t end with “remains to be seen” or anything remotely like it. Which is exactly what Satullo does in this commentary: he says, “we’re maddening creatures” and concludes that Steve Jobs can’t change that. So what’s the problem? Sit back, relax. Wait, we need to take care that our gadgets don’t drive us “even more mad”? Why? I thought we’re safely maddening. Ok, so how do we “take care”? Is just listening to our designated daily pearl-clutching from a Respected Columnist sufficient for “taking care”? No doubt, for Satullo.
Some years ago, Thomas Geoghegan wrote a book called Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back that I quite liked. I find myself feeling the same way about mainstream journalism. There’s so much value embedded within its traditions and so much potentiality bottled up inside of it. Which is why it is so infuriating to see those traditions so ill-served and that value so poorly developed.