For several decades of the twentieth century, no one hoping to win the presidency could ignore the Saturday Evening Post. With a circulation in the millions, it was the signpost for a Protestant, small-town, print-focused America.
Then television began to draw the public’s attention, and the Walter Cronkites of the world began to cut into the magazine’s influence. As the 1950s and 1960s brought ugly social schisms to the forefront of American culture, the conservative tone and focus of the Post began to feel quaint. By the opening of the 1970s, it was all but dead, struggling on as a little-noticed artifact of an earlier age.
This story about the American past can be told in many versions. Once upon a time, Joseph Pulitzer’s mighty New York World brawled for breaking stories and loyal readers with William Randolph Hearst’s vibrant New York Journal-American. Both have been dead longer than most of us have been alive. Media is mercurial; platforms come and go, dominate markets and wither to memories.
We’re there again. In the last few months, a presidential election has been organized around the flood of information coming from organizations that aren’t in the business of selling news to readers. We’ve learned to look to Wikileaks and Judicial Watch for the latest revelations, delivered through partisan websites and social media. Larry Klayman and Julian Assange and Andrew Breitbart—four years after his death!—drive the news cycle, which goes something like this: Judicial Watch to Breitbart to Drudge to Twitter and Facebook to you. Notice the absence of newspapers in that chain.
The Mainstream Media Loses Its Relevance
There are great benefits and enormous costs to this new system for delivering news. For one thing, news has lost coherence. It comes to us in an erratic flood, chopped out of order and dumped in pieces. Most of us don’t watch the debate: We watch a little excerpt of a dumb moment of the debate delivered by “The Daily Show,” and a YouTube clip of a different part that a friend posted on Facebook, and a Daily Caller video about one of the exchanges, and a dozen tweets from Dana Loesch about this one thing Hillary said. We lose the order, and so lose some of the meaning and context of the things people say and do. Our understanding of the world becomes at least somewhat random and disjointed.
But we also step around the increasingly pathetic gatekeeping of the laughably pathetic legacy media, which no longer provides any noticeable value and exercises no discernible influence. In the last couple of weeks, the wheels have come off that Edsel entirely. The Los Angeles Times is “Sick and Tired of Hearing that Hillary Clinton is Sick and Tired.” The Washington Post plaintively wonders, “Can we just stop talking about Hillary Clinton’s health now?” A columnist at the New York Times urges Google to bury searches about Hillary Clinton’s health. And the editorial board of the newspaper that broke the Watergate story wails that Americans need to stop talking about a presidential candidate’s appalling information security failures in a previous position of responsibility.
This is now the role of the legacy news media: A disheveled old man on the porch of the retirement home, screaming for everyone to shut up. Bloggers and hackers break news; newspapers and CNN anchors try to bury it. If the role of the Washington Post is to tell you not to talk about things that make powerful people look bad, why do we need the Washington Post? What is it for?
Try Breaking Some Actual News
Consider this: Late last year, the New York Times went all-in on gun control, proudly publishing a forceful front-page editorial for the first time in nearly a century. And then what? Record gun sales, month after month after month. They talk. Who listens? How long do legacy platforms survive as zero-influence scolds who advocate for a political worldview without breaking the most significant news stories?
Seven years ago in Reason magazine, Tim Cavanaugh argued that we were heading into a new model of news in which interested parties will replace supposedly objective journalists. You’ll get tomorrow’s news from flacks, Cavanaugh wrote, and you’ll like it: “Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism.”
He looks a little more correct with each passing day. Of course, the New York Times and CNN and the Washington Post could reverse the trend a bit by breaking a few tough stories, coming up with some contribution other than, “Leave Hillary alooooooone.” But what are the odds of that?