iFlit? kk: uBore.

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.

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8 Responses to iFlit? kk: uBore.

  1. jfruh says:

    Remember a few years ago, when the NY Times dipped its toes into the waters of paid content, and the content they decided ought to be paid for was … its opinion columns? Remember how this flopped terribly, and they ended up reversing course and making everything free again (for the moment)?

    I had an epiphany recently (surely not original, but I hadn’t heard anyone say it) that this odd decision almost certainly reflected journalism’s internal heirarchy, rather than the actual value of what traditional media produces. Columnists and opinionistas are often ex-reporters or ex-editors. They’ve done their time doing the nitty-gritty work, and have gathered a lot of valuable information and insight that make them qualified for the job of holding forth with their opinions on things. Being a columnist is a pretty posh gig — it sure beats chasing down sources on the phone or going to city council meetings — and it’s a promotion from day-to-day journalism. They’re almost certainly paid more than their mere mortal reporter co-workers, and thus people in the business see them as more valuable — and therefore assumed that readers would pay good money for access to them.

    But of course this is nonsense. Any asshole on the Internet can be David Brooks, or Maureen Dowd — or at least can be 80 percent as good as them, which works out fine since they’ll be infinitely cheaper. (I would argue that any asshole on the Internet can actually be 150 percent as good as Tom Friedman, but I digress.) And so the Times was charging for the one thing that the Internet has free and unlimited amounts (other people’s reporting digested and presented as opinion) while giving away the sort of dogged, professional, expensive reporting that people in their pajamas can’t or won’t do.

    Anyway, my point is: why do professional journalistic organizations even bother with opinion pieces any more? If they really need them, they should pay some blogger a pittance to repurpose them, then redirect that money to actual journalism.

  2. Timothy Burke says:


    Though I could see an NPR station or local paper arguing that some kind of community opinion writer is a good way to connect to their community, a cheaper kind of localism than actual reportage. But then you have to find someone who has a feel for locality, and what most of them instead go for is a completely generic pundit who isn’t good enough even for what passes for big-leagues punditry and reinforces the idea that the local scene is just a bush-league New York or Washington or San Francisco. And therefore that the local paper or the local radio station or anything local is dispensible.

  3. evangoer says:

    Okay, I’ll take a stab at some concrete predictions. I’m sure everyone reading this blog already could have recited #1 and #2 by heart anyway, but here goes.

    1. As it continues to get easier and easier to publish fiction, we will get an astounding abundance of new stuff to read. The absolute quantity of “good stuff” to read will increase, though the amount of “bad stuff” will of course increase faster.

    2. At the same time, fiction-writing will disappear as a paid career. All the dithering and soul-searching about how to make money off of ebooks, etc. is a waste of time. When the smoke clears, only technical writers and other highly specialized writers will actually make money directly from their writing.

    3. You will start to see fiction tailored very tightly to very small groups. People will be writing novel-length works not for money, but to impress small audiences of one or ten or maybe a few hundred people. These works will get more self-referential and more impenetrable to outsiders.

    4. For mass audiences, novel-writing will become more of a gentleperson’s pursuit. When the professional class of writers goes extinct, wealthy people will fill that niche: the people who are able to write full time, and the people who will have the best hope at getting their work out to a large audience.

    This means that in lists of the most popular books, we’ll actually see an *increasing* emphasis on works that reflect the concerns and worldview of the well-to-do. Meanwhile, down in the depths, fiction will get increasingly fungal and weird.

  4. anna h says:

    I agree Chris Satullo is the worst!!!!

  5. chrissatullo says:

    It’s nice to see that I can spur some agreement.

    Allow me to point out mildly, Tim, that you devoted about five times as many words to bashing this piece for not saying what you wanted it to as are alloted to such a radio commentary.

    And you rather missed the point of the NYT piece which was the jumping off point.

    Which leads you to make all kinds of unkind and untrue assumptions about the stance I was taking – creating a very familiar old media straw man you could bash.

    I probably didn’t take as much time as I could have to hone that piece into something of which you’d approve – in part because I spend 95 percent of my work week these days inventing a new Web presence for WHYY which aims to be one of the first true marriages of professional journalism and community production of news and commentary.

    That’s where the future is headed – and I’m trying to help build it on a firmer basis than the nonsensical notion that a thousand amateurs banging away in independent inexperience would somehow magically reproduce the kind of reporting that, say, Craig McCoy and Joe Tanfani of the Inquirer have done to expose the rot of public corruption in Philadelphia, or a few years back, that the Inquirer Washington bureau did to expose the lies and distortions of intelligence that undergirded the Iraq war.

    Of course, if you’d called me or written me – the kind of thing a real journalist might do before committing nastily critical opinions to public view – we could have had a nice chat about all this – and you’d have a much better sense of who I am, instead of a convenient stand-in for a favorite target.

    The email is csatullo@whyy.org. Be happy to talk anytime. Maybe you’d like to contribute to the new site.


  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I get that a radio commentary has to be short if it’s going to be on at all. That’s potentially an argument to skip the commentary in the first place. I feel that few of your commentaries on WHYY have added much of anything to the broadcast, Chris. If they’re going to be on, I think you need to work a lot harder to find a new angle, a distinctive voice, a local perspective, something that justifies taking up that airtime. In that sense, you’re not a stand-in for a favorite target: you are a representative example of the problem I’m commenting on, even if you’re a nice guy, etcetera. There’s no particular need for editorial commentary in the broadcast, really. WHYY has enough work cut out for it improving its local news coverage.

    If you’re busier with trying to get NewsWorks established, then stick to that. If NewsWorks turns out to be a good solution to the problem of how to keep reportage alive in the new media environment, then I’ll be first to cheer you on. I hope you find a way to leverage what’s already out there into something new rather than building a big, empty house which sits in lonesome cyberspatial splendor, which is so far closer to the pattern of established media attempts to participate in digital projects.

    I’m not sure why you think checking with you in advance would change anything about the fact that you took airtime to deliver a banal commentary on information technology. All I’d know then is that you’re busy: it doesn’t make the commentary itself any better.

    If you are concerned about length, think more carefully about what that concern implies. If you have very little space, focus on a single interesting, provocative or original thought. Or use digital space and radio space differently: a short on-the-air comment that links to a more in-depth, fully developed commentary. Or to some kind of forum or discussion that you’re trying to encourage or provoke. There are good models for that kind of approach out there already.

  7. Western Dave says:

    Mr. Satullo,
    This is a blog that has a core readership and so almost all of his readers understand certain unwritten aspects of the article. First, Tim, (and I and lots of other people who follow technology in depth from a historical perspective) didn’t “miss the point” of the NYT article. Rather we disagree that the research claims the scientists made lead to the conclusions the authors of the articles drew that technology is rewiring our brains in ways that are fundamentally different from the way brains have been rewired in historic times. Rather, most of us would agree with the Stephen PInker editorial that debunked the series and situated it in a long line of moral panics about new technologies. Thus your unintentionally hilarious line:

    “Thanks to Google, we can “know” fabulous amounts more than our ancestors did – yet sometimes all that does is make us quicker to fall for toxic fallacies.”

    You fell for a toxic fallacy in old media. That’s what Tim was pointing out. There’s lots of research out there on how people use the internet. Little of it makes it into newspapers. A lot of it is published on the web, sometimes even in blogs (11D, Crooked Timber both have had interesting things to say about what people do with blogs for example and much of it is counter-intuitive, and those research claims were quite limited).

    Or let’s do this another way. Old print media gave up the ghost on Civil Rights in 1877, or in some cases as late as 1896, and it stayed abandoned until the 1950s when a new media broke the wall of silence and racism and started showing images that brought the realities of the South the nation. Despite the fact that white Southerners complained loudly that the new medium -television- distorted the truth through it’s emphasis on images, privileged emotion over reason, and didn’t capture the depth and complexity of the situation, the introduction of television moved Civil Rights forward in ways newspapers hadn’t and wouldn’t because “nobody was interested in those stories.”

    The internet has done that for all kinds of reporting. I don’t know whether to feel sad or happy that some of the best reporting on the Iraq war was organized by a bunch of amateurs on a college campus that doesn’t even have a journalism program. What Tim is lamenting is the fact that what passes for in-depth reporting (ie: this protracted series in the NYT on how technology is making us stoopid and your echo chamber commentary) is what gives old media a bad name when it could and should do so much better.

  8. Doug says:

    Further, radio commentary or radio reportage does not have to be short. That’s an editorial choice, and if the story or the listeners are better served by running something longer, that’s certainly an approach that a station can take. It’s not as if “radio commentary” is like a limerick or a sonnet, such that it falls out of the form if it’s longer than five or 14 lines; the length is just a choice. As an old editor of mine said, “Give it what it’s worth.”

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