A loss of control: You could say it’s the thread running through the events of our time, but then the metaphor would be backwards. Rather, it’s the thread that’s unraveling through the events of our time. At the international level, the loss of control is generally good news. At the national level, the loss of control has us fearing the apocalypse. And in the media, it’s a mixed blessing, suggesting promises and dangers at the same time.

The loss of control by despots and stultifying Communist bureaucracies is obviously the best news of the latter part of the 20th century. The world is freer now than at any time in human history, a strange and exhilarating concept we don’t often pause to consider. Last month, South Africa announced that by the end of the year it would have a black president —at least on a rotating basis. It was ho-hum news, barely covered. The good news now comes at nearly the same pace as the bad news in the mid-to-late forties, when countries turning communist didn’t always make the front page. But if loss of control helped free the world, at home it translated into abdication of responsibility—on the part of government and the individual. We need only look to the Los Angeles riots to appreciate the powerful forces such irresponsibility has unleashed. But one bit of good news in the aftermath is that the idea of personal responsibility is finally getting a hearing. That means that when the process of regaining control resumes, there’s hope that it can be accomplished from the bottom up.

The most poorly understood loss of control this year has been on the part of the media. Actually, coverage of politics by the so-called national media has not been as terrible this campaign as in 1988. Horse-race coverage is down; issue coverage is up. People who say they can’t find details about where the candidates stand in the print press haven’t been trying very hard. Even network television is making a greater effort to cover substance.

But it doesn’t matter. The networks and other mainstream news organizations, which at one time dominated the election process, don’t do so anymore. Talk shows from CNN’s “Crossfire” to “Donahue” are increasingly warping traditional campaign coverage. Ross Perot circumvented the print press and the networks and announced his candidacy on “Larry King Live”; he may decide to forgo the campaign plane altogether and run his campaign by satellite linkup. Similarly, Jerry Brown has been more likely to pop up on the “Today” show or MTV than on “Nightline.” And after taking a drubbing in the weeks leading up to the New York primary, Bill Clinton helped reverse his momentum not by a sit-down interview with The New York Times editorial board, or even with Newsday‘s campaign correspondent, but by poking fun at himself in a short appearance on Don Imus’ irreverent morning radio show. Today, his main hope for taking his case for redemption to the American people is on shows like these. After all, most voters don’t watch “MacNeil-Lehrer.”

The result is that the whole structure of the media, like that of other institutions, is coming unglued. Just as in the collapse of authority in the Eastern bloc—or in Washington—we are witnessing the dawning of a new media order. News used to filter down from the country’s most powerful news organizations. Today, as we saw in the William Kennedy Smith case, when The National Enquirer sneezes, The New York Times catches a cold.

Small Media at Large

Regardless of whether the national media’s loss of control of the political agenda is good for America, it’s clearly not good for the national media, which are floundering perhaps more than ever. They’re neither confident enough to ignore the little guys nor humble enough—or crass enough—to follow up on their work.

Take the Gennifer Flowers episode. To have ignored that story completely would have been the equivalent of ignoring a group of strippers standing beside Clinton at an NEA convention. The entire presidential campaign shut down when Flowers made her allegations, and there was no way of pretending it didn’t. So the big media held up the story with asbestos mittens. For lots of people the story was the story: The Star’s checkbook journalism, the “60 Minutes” rebuttal, and so forth. (I played that game myself, getting some of the Gennifer details through customs as part of a media critique.) But, believe it or not, Gennifer Flowers was never interviewed by any of the networks. Then again, she didn’t need them to get her story out. Tens of millions saw her on Fox’s “A Current Affair.” Worst of all, few major news organizations took the time to either check out Flowers’ claims about her background (many of which turned out to be bogus) or to track down areas of inquiry suggested by the tapes. They just related the story without doing their job, which is to report.

Still, it’s hard to blame the big guys. When they have gotten down into the dirt recently, it’s had a remarkable tendency to smudge their own faces. Remember Fox Butterfield’s embarrassing investigative work on the William Kennedy Smith case? Or Maureen Dowd’s front-page review of Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan bio?

Clearly, the media elite’s in a bind: Damned by the highbrow if they do, damned demographically if they don’t. So confounded are editors that The New York Times, for example, consistently reports breaking character news as news briefs deep inside the paper and puts follow-ups on page one. When Vanity Fair ran a story mentioning the issue of George Bush’s alleged mistress, it was reported in a tiny box buried in the national section. You can’t ignore the story, but you can’t quite run with it either.

It’s a quandary that will only become more complex as technology further restructures the business of information. Desktop publishing now allows virtually anyone to publish a magazine; video technology takes TV where it has never been before; C-Span broadcasts round-the-clock, real-time news; fiber optics networks will soon bring whole libraries into the home. These all have the potential to redefine power relationships, to further dilute the power of the media elite.

Call me Pollyanna, but I see a silver lining in this loss of control. First, when fewer than half of Americans vote, it’s pretty churlish to complain about fringemedia dominance; we should probably thank God that the fringe media, which reaches tens of millions more Americans than “Washington Week in Review,” is paying attention at all—that Phil’s fans get an hour with Brown and Clinton instead of just more lesbians who hate other lesbians’ mothers. And shows like “Donahue” and “Larry King Live” and some radio talk shows—which the elite media view as faintly demagogic—actually contribute something positive to the political process. They allow viewers to ask questions and get closer to the candidates than they would in the requisite 60-second piece on “World News Tonight.” And many of the questions callers ask are good ones. (Recall that when Donahue interviewed Clinton, his audience wanted more issues, not more sex.) At their best, Phil and Larry and Brian Lamb’s C-Span interviews are as democratic as American media politics gets.

If the media splinter is arguably good for democracy, it’s also a swift kick in the pants for the national media, which can easily be insulated from the issues that affect middle America. In 1988, I began putting together a Newsweek feature called Conventional Wisdom Watch, not only for a good chuckle, but to alert people to the tyranny of the conventional wisdom, where elites think the same thing at the same moment—and are usually wrong. With any luck, the democratization of the media will loosen the stranglehold of conventional wisdom.

In some ways, that’s already happening. One reason the national press didn’t wax indignant about congressional pay raises last fall was that to well-salaried Washington columnists, those raises seemed fully justifiable. But what talk-radio hosts and small-town editors did that the elite media couldn’t was reach the part of the country with an average income of $28,000, not $108,000—and let those folks communicate their opinions (or in this case, their outrage). As the midnight raise turned into a month-long controversy, congressmen were forced to make their case for upping their pay—something the fully sympathetic national media hadn’t really required them to do.

Consider also the House Bank uproar. Well over a year ago, The Washington Post ran a story revealing the mismanagement and overdrafts but downplayed its findings. And this past fall, over at The New York Times, a long (inside) article appeared when the story broke, rationally attempting to explain why the overdrafts were of minor significance. In the meantime, USA Today—a popular tip sheet for radio talk-show hosts—trumpeted the news on its colorful page one. Sure enough, the public looked right past the establishment papers and spun into a frenzy.

An additional—and not unrelated—benefit of the new media order is that spin control is now a hell of a lot harder for national politicians. Congressional leaders can convince The Washington Post they need higher salaries, and Bill Clinton can make nice with The New Republic. But when Dan Quayle’s press secretary, David Beckwith, was trying to spin radio talk shows not long ago about allegations of his boss’ drug use, he had to stealthily resort to identifying himself as “Dave, a caller from Washington, D.C.”

Current Despair

Still, it’d be foolish to assert that the new order is all benign. Context—the sense of proportion—that was once something the mandarins of the business could control, is now in the hands of people who cannot be described as journalists. Consider the Gennifer Flowers fiasco again. The Star and “Inside Edition” can’t tell you, for context’s sake, that great presidents like Franklin Roosevelt had mistresses—that disqualifying a candidate on that basis is folly. One reason is because they can’t really tell you much about Franklin Roosevelt. Even if they do understand the subtleties, though, there’s little incentive to try to explain them since they only lessen the punch of a sexy story. And, given the mass-market audience, sex is something even Larry King and Phil Donahue have to respond to.

In general, we now have lowest-common-denominator journalism, where the sordid tends to drive out the important, where more people know that Robert Alton Harris ate pizza at his pre-execution dinner than could tell you even the most basic differences between the candidates on health care. This may help to explain how America as a whole got into such a pickle in the eighties. The pop media defines news as what’s visual and stark. Issues like global competitiveness, the S&L mess, and the deficit are hard to understand and a little boring.

And now, sick as it sounds, a whole presidential campaign may turn on the fact that Democratic mistresses are less discreet than Republican ones. The candidates talk substance, but if people get their news about politics from a combination of “Inside Edition” and local news, they won’t hear it. A woman asked me recently, “Why don’t the Democratic candidates ever talk about conservation?” In fact, Brown and Clinton talk endlessly about it. But what the candidates say when they aren’t attacking each other is not defined as news, so it rarely gets reported, so people think the candidates aren’t saying anything, and on and on in an endless cycle of alienation.

This points to perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the new media order. Yes, the big media needed a comeuppance, and these tiny amino acids now eating away at our certainty are generally healthy. The problem is that—despite one’s best optimistic, antielitist arguments—the new hegemony of Phil and Larry clearly isn’t teaching Americans enough about the people who will lead them. A.nd it’s probably not teaching the smug media elite a lesson about what the average man wants in his news, either. Rather, it may be propelling that media out of the business of reaching the average man altogether. In the future, the national media may increasingly become an elite media shaping elite opinion—with The Washington Post, “The CBS Evening News,” and Newsweek all going for the same few million people who run the country. A lot of journalists will make perfectly fine livings doing this (and certain elite advertisers will love it), but the big guns will have ceded the mass market altogether. And they will thus have ceded their connection, however tenuous, to the majority of people who live—and vote—in America.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.