Sunday, October 5, 2008

The End of Influence

It used to be that the main sources of credible and allegedly reliable political information came from the major big city newspapers, the three major TV networks, the two major news magazines and, more recently, the two competing cable channels CNN and Fox. I do not wish to denigrate newspapers and television in other markets throughout the country, but most people will acknowledge that the lion's share of influence came from the sources I have cited.

By far the movers and shakers of the political world pored over the New York Times and the Washington Post as the bibles of the wise world view, the quintessential oxygen of the zeitgeist.

The mighty Washington Post had the power to bring down Presidents, and the newspaper of record, the old grey lady, the New York Times was the major news source with the clout to seed every important major media in America and, arguably, the planet.

Staffed by a dominant cadre recruited from the elite feeder colleges, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and others that could be shoehorned into that category, the major "elite" media became a kind of branch of this closed shop of contemporary academic orthodoxy and entitlement. Like ethnic groups who felt more comfortable in their neighborhoods with similar neighbors, the so-called major media became more comfortable with their own kind, those educated in these colleges and universities underline once again the old birds of a feather cliché.

It became true of all power clusters in America, from Wall Street to law and other major wealth producing occupations that an Ivy League old school tie was and, arguably, still is the major gateway to fame and fortune. As an aside, one cannot fail to mention that those recruited from the business schools of these great institutions led the disastrous charge on Wall Street that heroically bugled us all over the cliff into the greatest American financial debacle of all time.

Ironically, it might be unseemly to point out that three of the most powerful of our founding fathers, Washington, Franklin and Hamilton, never graduated from college, although the latter dropped out of King's College, the precursor of Columbia.

While working in the media does not offer the heady awards of wealth, it does offer a far more seductive aphrodisiac, power and notoriety, the ability to amplify one's alleged wisdom through the bullhorn of the printed and spoken word. The psychic satisfactions of the power to influence cannot be exaggerated. It is the Holy Grail of ambition.

Alas, this power to influence via the traditional media is deteriorating rapidly under the onslaught of technology, which has spawned a Tower of Babel Internet culture where the number of voices has expanded exponentially and the pool of influence has become an angry ocean of riptides making the old methods of navigation impossible. We are being informed more and know less. Everyone seems to believe that everyone is entitled to everyone's opinion.

What was only a few years ago called the "major media" is quickly losing its monopoly of influence. The signs are everywhere. Newspapers are losing circulation at an ever-accelerating pace. The once vaunted three networks have become shadows of their former glory. The news magazines are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The bottom line, of course, is that advertisers, whose only measure of effectiveness is how many eyeballs they can attract and where they can pinpoint their message, are fractionalizing their ads and spreading them over a wider swath undermining the economic base that fuels this media.

On television, the three major networks have long peaked in influence and offer their news messages to an older and older demographic, slicing away people under sixty from their range of influence. In a few more years they will join their print brothers in the influence cemetery of the extinct. Even the cable networks with their self-hyped authenticity and increasingly inarticulate talking heads increasingly cater to an ever more aging demographic. Look where their ads are pointed, to the incontinent, the erection disabled, the sleep deprived, the diabetic, all markers of the ravages of aging.

The people who run these enterprises are not fools. They are discovering that playing to people with the same biases is their only business lifeline, especially in New York City and Washington where the educated elite huddle together in an easily targeted and self-important, although increasingly leftist, segment. I suspect that if, for example, the Times took too a big a step right, they would lose enough subscribers to push them that much closer to a Bear Stearns finish. It is probably true of the other former big guns of the mainstream media.

The Times, however, does have one saving ace in the hole. It provides the most extensive and comprehensive coverage of the Big Apple's vast array of cultural activities. Frankly, as an avid consumer of such information, I hope it will give them enough revenue to sustain them in some fashion for the long haul, although I am not optimistic. The Washington Post, on the other hand, serving a less culturally charged entertainment scene, may have a more difficult time getting traction and will attempt to vastly increase its local service coverage to keep afloat.

As for real influence, the kind they enjoyed for decades, the Times is already in free fall on that score despite its vaunted slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print" and their promise to be "a newspaper of record." The truth is that for decades they did fulfill those goals. In the last few years their focus has been too narrow and blatantly biased to make that case.

I can imagine how many focus groups they have enlisted to try to reverse their dreary business prospects. They probably were obliged, based on their research, to double their op ed cadre of conservatives, adding neocon William Kristol to join with David Brooks to give them a patina of fairness, especially since these writers are part of the intellectually acceptable conservatives in the mold of William Buckley. I doubt it will help improve their bottom line. Most of their centrist and moderate right subscribers have probably already gone.

Indeed, it seems at times that desperation rules the roost among the Times editors who support the strident outpourings of Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert and their roster of like-minded columnists who clang the pots for the disadvantaged and put-upon, few of whom are readers. One wonders if this clique is in the wrong pew, considering that the advertisements for upscale jewelry and super luxury products that can only be afforded by the folks they rail against continue to fill the adjacent space in the newspaper.

The most hopeful survival sign in the media influence department is the Wall Street Journal, which the canny Rupert Murdoch bought as his flagship newspaper outlet. The Times pretty well abdicated its money coverage giving Murdoch the perfect opening to buy the Journal, whose theme is "Money," a universal subject. The Journal is more conservative in outlook, largely because people who deal in money are less comfortable with vituperative lectures by unsettling voices of grievance.

Note how the Journal is moving into the mainstream of traditional journalism, rowing cautiously down the center and adapting some of the Times' mindset from its glory days when its approach to news gathering was more impartial. It will be interesting to see if it transforms itself under its "money" umbrella to become some hybrid that eats its way into the Times' once dominant turf. As an avid Journal paper and website reader, I am deeply impressed by their imaginative effort at transformation.

The fact is that I sorely miss the old influential culture of the once great media outlets. Perhaps I am simply being nostalgic, but I did respect what passed as the elite media of yesteryear which, I sensed, gave me a more factual and balanced picture of our world than they do today. I believed in their news coverage. I believed in the honesty of their columnists' offerings, even those with whom I disagreed. I now take everything they say with a giant grain of salt, and I ignore the pretentious faux sagacity of their editorials.

Worse, as a former newspaper editor, I can easily recognize the bias of their headline writers and the subtle ways they place their stories to cater to their committed readers. Thankfully, my experience has given me the ability to filter out all the hogwash.

That said, I will never give up my paper subscription to the New York Times, which I have been reading since I was twelve years old. I know how to interpret their politically tinged news stories and their columnists' offerings, which I read diligently but without conviction. They amuse and entertain me, and I do occasionally learn something of interest from their efforts.

But the non-political content of the Times is unbeatable and, for the most part, well written, wide-ranging and wonderfully diverse. It covers a vast panorama of the local, national and global community. It offers the best coverage of the arts anywhere on the planet, and I cannot conceive of not seeing the paper at my apartment door every morning.

Yes, their political influence has declined and they have certainly lost traction among those who do not follow their political line, but I can understand the business decisions that they must have made to continue their bias. They have been dealt a terrible technological blow that might one day bring them to their knees and are trying to cope with this onslaught as best they can by gathering together the prime adherents of their bias.

As they say in politics, they are being loyal to what has become their base. Indeed, I have the sense that any dissent to their policies from within their ranks is met with tolerant contempt and, worse, the threat of expulsion.

I wouldn't deign to predict how this decline of influence of the once powerful media will play out. Indeed, it is impossible to embrace the dizzying spiral of information being hurled at us through cyberspace. I just hope and pray the center holds, but I'm no longer as certain as I was.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.

4 comments:

Chuck Kershner said...

Warren, you said nothing about the internet presence of the Times, Post and Journal. Each offers far more than they can in the pages of their ink on paper products. The industry you long for and which you and I worked in is now driven by technology. I own/edit a 162-year-old weekly newspaper with a growing web presence. When I speak to groups about the industry, I have a difficult time restraining myself from saying: "In a heart beat I would abandon the print edition for an all-web paper. It is easier to produce and eliminates nearly all of the cost overheads of producing an ink on paper product." But the catch: Can we duplicate on the web the same amount of revenue we generate from the printed newspaper? So far the answer is no. Given how much the Times, Post and Journal invest in their web sites without much advertising I suspect they, too, are not making much money. Without the print editions, they'd be nothing. - Chuck Kershner, executive editor, Clinton (NY) Courier (www.clintoncourier.com)

SEYMOUR said...

Do you think that Rupert Murdoch and Page 3 in his London publication will save the Wall Street Journal for conservatives?
Do you remember when you were a kid in Brownsville and you friend showed
you Page 4 in the NY Daily News?

SEYMOUR said...

DO YOU THINK THAT RUPERT MURDOCH AND HIS LONDON NEWSPAPER - THE SUN- WITH PAGE 3 . WILL SAVE THE WALL STREET JOURNAL FOR THE CONSERVATIVES?
REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE A KID IN BROWNSVILLE AND YOUR FRIEND SHOWED YOU PAGE 4 IN THE N DAILY NEWS?

Warren Adler said...

I appreciate the comments.