Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Under the Media Big Top with a (Hungry) Jim Pinkerton

Another installment from guest blogger Jim Pinkerton

Boston – Reporters get no respect. It’s a good thing we don’t have to work that hard. I mean, let’s face it: sitting around—even walking around—isn’t exactly shoveling coal.

That’s always been true, of course. But now it’s getting for worse for the reportorial class. The era of Big Government might not be over, but I’m afraid that the era of Big Media is—are?—over.

Whereas once conventions—I’ve been going to ‘em since 1980—were luxe and plush with free food for anyone with a press pass, now everyone’s scrimping. So no Pharaohonic buffets for us; no groaning tables fit for kings and queen. We’re mere plebs now, here amidst the downscaled expectations—for true news, as well as for gustatory gusto—here at the Fleet Center media tent. We line up patiently for free food from the single corporation willing to spend money lobbying the likes of us: Bell South. And though the price was right—free, not counting the humiliation of queuing up while our badges were closely inspected—this exercise in Southern hospitality wasn’t much: just free hotdogs and free sodas.

Of course, the alternative was even less appetizing. To venture outside the Fleet Center was to confront the trauma of getting back in. (The restaurants seem empty here; between money-chintzing visitors and other-tourist-scaring-away security, it’s going to be a lot harder to sucker cities into hosting the ’08 conventions.) Downstairs at the media tent (curiously, it’s a two story tent) is a single outlet was peddling $6 nachos--they'd be $2 at Taco Bell, maybe $4 at a movie theater. And even that price-jack-up-stand was running out of food; I suspect that vendors, too, are having a hard time getting victuals in to this place.

So why the bitter rain of pouring tears and the empty-sigh sound of emptying wallets? What went wrong?

Four reasons:

First and most frightfully, changing economics. All that competition from cable, from bloggers, from functional illiteracy. The scenario we Fourth Estaters face is akin to the dilemma of the porn industry, circa 1980, as depicted in the movie “Boogie Nights.” In the 70s, smut-on-screen gained steam; revenues rose, and so, commensurately, did XXX-film budgets and their production values. Smutsters dreamed heroic dreams of porn epics. But then came the VCR; so the pleasuring—oops, I meant pleasure of viewing—of porn movies traveled from movie theaters to VCRs. And so the industry shifted from a relatively few high-budget films to an infinity of low-budget videotape jobs. To be sure, the San Fernando Valley has weathered the shift—it’s flourished, in fact--in terms of aggregate work and profits, but each unit of output costs much less, and is worth much less. And so it is, too, with the non-naked media—there are more of us, and total revenues have increased, but less money is spent on each of us. One could say that we are each worth less; we are drones now, expendable beans, loosely cared for in the pods of the bean counters. At least we get to keep our clothes on.

Second, the changing media landscape. If competition takes away the surplus rents of reportorial rentiers, a different kind of competition has taken the swaggering out of the chattering class. Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, Fox News—the true axis of evil, in the opinion of many journos—have finally beat The Press. To be sure, a lot more people still consume the mainstream media, but the sort of moral and intellectual monopoly that old-line reporters once enjoyed is gone. Not so long ago, CBS News would go to, say, the GOP convention in Dallas and declare, simply, “Reagan stinks.” (OK, they were slightly more polite than that, but that’s what they meant, and everyone knew it.) Nowadays, everyone looks at news in a new light: reporters realize that viewers, readers, and clickers have choices, and so everyone is much more careful about ideo-gregiousness. Which, of course, takes away a lot of the fun of being a pundit.

Third, Howard Dean. Remember him? He was the Media Darling earlier this year, on all the covers and front pages, and yet he finished third in Iowa. The media, reminded, once again, of institutional weakness, are now stuck with John Kerry, whom they don’t really like. But then again, who does like him?

Fourth, Ron Burgundy. You know, the character played by Will Ferrell in the film, “Anchorman.” After half a century of riding high, reporters are finally being “Ted Baxter-ed,” which is to say, everyone’s on to us. All our airs, all our pretensions, all our vanities—bonfired. I’m not a press-basher in the sense that I think reporters are deserving of being scourged, flogged, and drawn-and-quartered—certainly not drawn-and-quartered—but it was inevitable that the dialectical wheel would turn and that people, including us ourselves, would realize just how risible many of the journalistic canons truly are. To be sure, there’s still such a thing as truth, but Jonathan Swift could do a better job of revealing it three centuries ago; all he had was a quill pen. So it doesn’t take much to skewer the media, but now, the skewers have some heavy weapons—cameras of their own. Oh look—there’s Jon Stuart.

So where will it end? I suspect that in the future, the bloggers—who are to journalism what the VCR was to porn, the harbinger of cost-crash--will inherit much of the earth. That is, a lot of “journalism" will be done by anyone and everyone just reporting on whatever they see out his or her window. And if said window happens to overlook Iraq, or Laci Peterson, or anything else that could be construed as man-bites-dog, then that’ll be the “news” that’s available to us. Moreover, since everyone will be online with a computer, then “blogger” will become an even less exclusive term—it will be a synonym for “minimally media-savvy observer.” Now that’s democratization of the media. And then there’ll really be no such thing as a free lunch for reporters.

But of course, in some ways, this Blog New World will be really cool. I’m astonished by this the seeming infinity of blogs out there--fresh, intelligent, interactive content, thousands of people participating in a giant conversation. Thanks to blogging, the Net will become the neural pathway of our collective consciousness, as Neuromancer predicted two decades ago. It’s no longer a downward flow of information, it’s a circulatory system. And how do you get paid if you’re just another corpuscle?

So who will get paid for opinions? I’m not the first one to say this, but pundits will be patronized—that is, they will receive stipends and subsidies from patrons, e.g. The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, al-Jazeera, Lyndon LaRouche, the Fortune 500, the Neocon Cabal.

And this future is coming: I see the headline on the dreaded Drudge Report today:

THE BIG YAWN: NETWORKS IN RATINGS FREEFALL AT CONVENTION, OPENING NIGHT ALL-TIME LOW: ABCNEWS JENNINGS WITH 3.5 RATING/5 SHARE [DOWN FROM 4.5/8 IN 2000]; NBCNEWS BROKAW 3.3/5 [2000:4.8/9]; CBS DAN RATHER 3.2/5 [2000:3.8/7... TRAIL ALL OTHER PRIME-TIME MONDAY PROGRAMMING [CBS:MIAMI RERUN ON CBS PULLS 8.6 RATING/13 SHARE]... DEVELOPING...

To be sure, one could take this as a criticism of this dull convention, even than as a criticism of the coverage. But the politicians are smarter than us: they’ve long since arranged their own system of stipends and subsidies, which get paid no matter how boring they might be.

-- Jim Pinkerton

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