It’s late, or early I suppose, and I’m taking one more gander ‘round some of my favorite sites before I head off to slumber. A quick glance on CNN, and I notice something. I usually hit the headlines, maybe the Politics and Science sections, often winding up in Entertainment, but tonight I decide to dig a little deeper. I check out Books, just in case something interesting has happened, and I find…diddly.
More accurately, I find old news. The most recent story appears to have been posted April 6, which is going on three months old. What the hell? So, in a world where the 24-hour news cycle has reduced major players like CNN and Fox News to reading Twitter feeds and checking Facebook in some situations (i.e. Iran during the election revolts), nobody at CNN thinks anything interesting’s happened in the literary world? Hell, even small newspapers do better than that; I saw a piece on censorship and a Sherman Alexie book just the other day.
But, what is news, exactly? It used to be thought of as events that happened of import, incidents that had the capacity to affect a wide swath of the local populace, but that definition has mutated some. I used to work on the copy desk at a newspaper, and while there was general agreement about what the cover stories would be from section to section on any given night, there was a lot of conversation about what would fill the other pages. It wasn’t a matter of what was important, or well-done, or of immediate impact on the community, because while those factors are important, the joint I worked at was a little more realpolitik about the process.
No, what made the news where I worked (and, by extension, other media outlets, because I’ve worked in and around a few, and they seem to all operate the same way) were articles about big, splashy, sensational events. Articles, I might add, that were written in a specific way: front-loaded with info, big points pushed as far to the front as possible, and with vocabulary and sentence structure pitched at an eighth-grade level, because that is the average reading level of the American population. I’m not trying to be snotty here, but I want to bring up another point: writing for that level is tough. Especially if that’s not your native level. If you’re familiar with Flesch-Kincaid reading scores, try testing your work and see how it comes out. So far, this document is running at 10.3 (meaning a tenth-grade reading level), and that’s with me making a conscious effort to keep sentences short.
So. Back to point: you’ve got decisions being made on what plays on the news, in the papers, over the media of your choice, and those decisions are based on people sitting around a conference table or monitor and saying, “Will people read this? Will people buy this? What keeps our audience hooked?” It seems like I’ve been hearing the same old song about how mainstream media sucks and media bias this and you can’t get the truth anywhere that and on and on.
Well, it’s bullshit. The media we got is the media we earned. People demand to be kept up to date on the latest starlet, the newest media, the juiciest gossip, and they’re not willing to pay for, or pay attention to, much else unless it costs them money or gets them ahead. We The People have trained the media to give us what we want, and have shown them that the money will not follow them unless they do. Sure, the business model ain’t so grand, but the business of news has always been about bread and circuses. Those of us in the media managed to fool ourselves otherwise for so long because when the model worked, newspapers did great, and businesses that do great can afford to be indulgent and pay for things. Like three-martini lunches and spending accounts, yes, but also for muckraking and investigative journalism and exposes of corruption, those things best about journalism.
But not just those, not just the romantic nobility of fighting the bad guys on deadline with words and ink, crusty reporters and eagle-eyed copy editors allied together with only the pen and press to bear against evil. When the model worked, there was also space for reasoned opinion, film criticism, arts, community events…and books. Literary discussions, interviews, book reviews and best of all: the implied opinion that books were news, events of import unto themselves. Even if nobody else believed it, the fact of book news’ existence made its own argument.
We don’t have that so much anymore. To get specific to our bailiwick, books are still published, authors still have opinions, and there are still true believers in the Words out there, but like so much else now, the camps are fragmented, Balkanized into genres and fiefdoms of character. Everybody must act as their own Diogenes now, carrying lanterns and searching for that honest word. When the mainstream media lost the power to consistently propel all those cultural treasures along in its path, we lost something. Not because the MSM was necessarily best equipped to bring us the news, but because it was one less thing to hold us together. One less cornerstone in our national conversation, one less link in our national identity.
In time, maybe that will change. It seems to me if you accept the truth of George Santayana’s maxim on learning from history, you have to admit the possibility of hope. Sometimes, that’s enough. Now, I’m gonna call this soapbox on account of darkness. Rest easy, y’all.
P.S. Got it down to a 9.5. Yay, me.