The decline of the mainstream media is not only a matter of liberal bias, but of linguistics. The dinosaur media is losing readers because it is full of bad writers.
I grew up with the Washington Post, and still pad down the driveway faithfully every morning to read the paper. To be sure, the leftward tilt is annoying, but to me it’s not only what the writers are saying, but how they are saying it. A typical example is a recent piece by Hank Stuever about Jay Leno’s new 10 p.m. television show. At the climax of the piece, Stuever offers this:
But what are we looking for in all this — a new network business model or passing entertainment? Or some sort of variety show from our imagined glory days of vintage TV, something that will refocus our ideas about comedy, celebrity and frivolity?
Anymore it’s hard to tell. Leno, of course, would say he’s but a humble funnyman and there is now pressure for “The Jay Leno Show” to do anything other than fill the air with mirth.
But we’ve been trained by the infotainment industry for nearly two decades now to believe in a fictive epic battle known as the “late-night wars,” with its ancestral Jack Paar and Johnny Carson cave etchings.…[But] set aside the ratings game and instead engage the viewer on the subject of Leno’s talent. Then what sort of conversation are we having? Leno is funny, but in the safest way.
Note: it took Stuever most of his piece to get to the point where he was actually addressing whether he thinks Leno is any good or not. About halfway through the piece, he writes that “armchair critics almost never talk about whether Leno’s good, and instead acknowledge his universal appeal, his role in the national chitchat and buzz.” There are more important questions, insists Stuever: “So was [the new show] funny? Was it new? Was it worth all that? Will it last?”
Well, we don’t know. Because, as Stuever awkwardly puts is: “anymore it’s hard to tell.” At the end, Stuever says that Leno is too safe. But this should have been the beginning of the piece, not its end. And the idea should have been developed. How is Leno too safe? Was he ever more daring? If so, how did he change? Steuver’s piece reads like his notes, not like a finished article. (I paid 75 cents for this?)
Many journalists in the mainstream media today feel compelled to perform a balancing act: they feel it is their job to give their opinion, but it can only be given at a glib and childish remove, and only once the piece is larded with observations about process. Thus, directly opposite from the Leno piece in the Style section is a piece about “high-profile outbursts” — Joe Wilson calling Obama a liar, Serena Williams going postal on a line judge, Kayne West jumping on stage to interrupt an award winner. Do the outbursts of celebrities in public like West make us “hit new lows”? According to Post writers Wil Haygood and Chris Richards, we don’t know. They describe “the convergence of entertainment and moxie, shamelessness and passion” that comes with a public outburst, and interview experts from academia, who — naturally — blame such eruptions on talk radio and town hall meetings. The two writers let these critics make their point for them, rather than having the guts to simply say what they believe.
The person most responsible for this cowardice is probably Maureen Dowd. The best piece about Dowd’s effect on the media is still “Creeping Dowdism,” a 1992 piece written by Katherine Boo in the Washington Monthly. Boo notes that by the early 1990s Maureen Dowd’s aloof, smirking, superficial and too-cute style in the New York Times had infected the rest of the press corps. A little of this fizz was fine, Boo wrote, but it had gotten to the point where it was corroding any kind of earnestness: “Coursing through stories of [Dowd’s] sort is a fundamental doubt about the beneficial possibilities of the democratic process. It’s so phony, says the subtext, that I’m not going to try to wring out any meaning. Instead, I’m going to amuse you.” Boo then observed how the Times‘ Elizabeth Kolbert concluded from watching a debate between Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas that “one cannot help feeling somehow implicated in their dispute. Perhaps, one wonders, it is time to find them professional counseling.” Boo: “Kolbert’s metaphor is as revealing as it is patronizing. Locking in on the posturing, she actually seems to believe that what they’re arguing about — which happened to be the taxation of entitlements for the affluent as a means of cutting the deficit — is as private a matter as a marriage dispute. In this conception, and it’s not just Kolbert’s, politics is not about affixing an imprint on a country or the world. It’s a wholly self-serving, inner-directed enterprise.”
The endgame, Boo writes, is a press corps that resembles a high school locker room:
To these bored and overexposed insiders, everybody eventually begins to seem absurd, predictable, incapable of sincerity, inspiration, or meaning — undeserving of being “taken seriously.” A game it is, then. Whoever pens the most metaphors wins.
What’s so dreadful about that? Well, there’s the tiresome matter of the people — what Dowd calls “the Joe Sixpack constituency.” Sure, it’s useful to them to know that politicians’ proposals for tax relief or health care or education always involve a healthy dose of calculation, absurdity, and melodrama. But — should we even have to say it? — when one of those politicians (however ridiculous) is elected, his proposals (however cynical) may have a real effect on their lives. Joe Sixpack knows this, and duller stories in the dailies outline it clearly: Polls and focus groups show that voters are very worried about the economy, the quality of public schools, and the cost of health care — and they’re frustrated by the apparent inability of politicians to get serious about those issues. Yet even when explaining the national disgust with glib politicking, the popular yearning for discussion of real issues, Dowd can’t resist singsonging: “They say they want leaders with candor, not leaders who pander.”
The most unbelievable example of this assault on sincerity and its attendant lassitude appears on the very same Post Style section page as the aforementioned pieces by Stuever, Haygood and Richards. Louis Bayard opens his review of Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, with this one sentence paragraph: “Welcome to the least relevant review you will read all year.” Whatever Bayard writes about The Lost Symbol, you see, will be lost in the tsunami of hype and sales that attend any Dan Brown book. Bayard’s review just doesn’t matter. Bayard admitting as much is supposed to come off as mirthful self-deprecation, but it’s actually very sad and pathetic — not to mention dishonorable. It’s like an NFL team coming out to play a far superior squad, setting up for kickoff, then just walking off the field and back into the locker room. A writer with a sense of honor — not to mention cojones — might set out to produce a debunking of Brown so dazzling, ferocious and irrefutable that it would outlast the paper it was printed on. Instead, Bayard flops over and dies at the opening bell. One is reminded how, in 1919, H.L. Mencken wrote a devastating criticism of the socialist thinker Thorsten Veblen. At the time, Veblen was hugely popular among the elites, but Mencken’s surgical defenestration is what remains in print, and, I dare say, even read, decades later. It was hilarious, yes, but also deadly serious. Mencken was debunking a socialist whose ideas had infected the intelligentsia and the public. He was providing a public service.
Shortly after dispatching that day’s Post to the recycle bin — not to worry, the same type stories will appear tomorrow — I turned to the Irish Times. In it was a serious, humane, and beautiful article by John Banville about the new Welsh film sleep furiously (lower-case letters in original). It begins thus: “At the close of his recent and superb collection of essays, Gray’s Anatomy, the political philosopher John Gray urges upon humanity a new quietism. ‘Other animals,’ he writes, ‘do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as simply being to see?’ It may seem an overly simplified exhortation, given the dire predicament we have got ourselves into, yet would it not make at least a good start on the road to recovery from our present soul-sickness if we were to stand back and just look?”
Call it the antidote to creeping Dowdism.