Don’t Blame It On the Internet

As we wait for the various news events of the morning to roll out, it’s as good a time as any to mention Frank Rich’s long meditation on the decline of Old-Media journalism at New York. Considering Rich’s age (63) and highly conventional background in mainstream media, you’d expect this to be a lament for the good old days when Men of Integrity served as Guardians of the Truth–or perhaps those more recent days when blue New York Times wrappers dotted the dewy morning landscape far beyond Gotham, and much of the country still tuned into the Big Three television networks for nightly news.

There’s a little of that, understandably, but Rich is mostly determined to fight the myth that the decline of print and broadcast journalism is a sudden development wrought by the internet and the dirty hippies who are thought to heavily populate it. Here’s a poignant graph about that great celebrator of the Old Media, David Halberstam:

In the case of our contemporary mainstream news media, the myopia (which I certainly shared) might well be exemplified by the former Times reporter David Halberstam, as sharp a journalist as there has been in my time. In 1979, he published The Powers That Be, a largely laudatory history of four organizations then considered to be serious competitors, if not exactly peers, of the Times: CBS, Time Inc., the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Revisiting his book in 2000 to write an introduction for a new paperback edition, Halberstam was in despair about most of them. What troubled him were the corporate values of new owners, the rise of cable news and its embrace of a tabloid sensibility, the fragmentation of the audience, the cutbacks in expensive foreign reporting, and the passing of a generation of print-trained television executives who “had accepted the norms and values of print in defining news.” He wrote glumly that his 1979 book “seems like something that was written a hundred years ago, not merely twenty years ago.” And he made that despairing judgment without even taking into account the early havoc already being wrought on traditional news media by the Internet—which merited only one offhand mention in his introduction.

More provocatively, Rich challenges nostalgia about the quality of Old Media:

An essential step to welcoming change is to stop romanticizing what came before. That includes fantasies about the “golden age” of twentieth-century television. Superficial as the network evening newscasts may be now, they are no more so than the halcyon fifteen-minute evening newscasts presided over by Chet Huntley and David ­Brinkley. As for the sainted Edward R. Murrow, he would have been right at home on 60 Minutes. He didn’t just take on Joe ­McCarthy and the plight of migrant workers but conducted celebrity interviews in which he lobbed softballs at Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liberace….

There is plenty of junk online, but the old media had their own antecedents of cat ­videos, rumormongers, and gossip sites. It’s amazing how few remember that in the good old days, there was Confidential as well as Time, the scurrilous and red-baiting Daily Mirror as well as the Times and Journal, rigged game shows like The $64,000 Question sharing prime time with Murrow’s See It Now. For any news junkie who once had to rely on days-late shipments to out-of-town newsstands to read firsthand news from Chicago or Tokyo, it seems like winning the lottery to be able to surf the digital marketplace now.

Ah yes. To someone like me who used to wait in Atlanta for days-old copies of WaPo (conveyed at ridiculous cost) or sit in the dark on political news until the original Hotline (which had all the vices of Politico without the competition) slowly rolled off the fax machine, in many respects these are the good old days.

Rich doesn’t offer any clear predictions of what’s next (though there is an interesting section on whether the online experiments of newspapers will eventually spin off as its creators decide the Old Media anchor isn’t worth the cost, as could happen with the Times‘ prize FiveThirtyEight sub-site), though he predicts a long, long transition full of exceptional pain for those who choose to make a living in journalism:

A few weeks ago I ran into a staff writer in his early forties I know at the Washington Post, where layoffs, cuts in coverage, and management turnover have been particularly severe. As is typical in such encounters, we compared notes on the state of the business. “We’re in for a long period of reinvention,” he said, “and almost no one now in journalism will see the end of it. It will take years to figure out how to pay for it. And reinvention is a painful thing to watch.

UPDATE: WaMo alum Steve Waldman offered his own take on Big Picture of U.S. journalism recently at the Columbia Journalism Review site, and emphasized the terrible state of local, as opposed to national, news coverage.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.