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Perspective on knowledge: The good old days of news

This article appears in the issue March 2016 (100 Companies) [Volume 25, Issue 3]


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Now that we are deep into the backlash against the Internet, let’s pile on by reminiscing about the Good Old Days of knowledge before the Net. Shall we? We shall, taking the news as our example!

Remember how we got the news? In 1993, when Web Fever was only escaping its test tube, the combined viewership of the nightly news in America was just under 41 million people (source: stateofthemedia.org/2004/network-tv-intro-2/audience). For 22 minutes a night, they were watching journalists hired by major corporations deliver their idea of what was important. In Navigating the News, Michael Baranowski analyzes a typical slow news day’s broadcast in 2012 and finds that when you take out Brian Williams’ intros to stories, the half-hour news show contained under 20 minutes of news. There were 11 stories, averaging 1 minute and 47 seconds. The longest piece was a human-interest story that was just over three minutes.

By 2003 the number of viewers of the nightly news had dropped 28 percent from 1993. But are we sure that’s a bad thing? The narrowness of the medium—22 minutes, 11 stories—meant that no matter how skilled the editors were at skirting their personal biases, the inevitably perspectival nature of their job magnified their implicit points of view to a truly dangerous degree.

But far worse, they not only set the agenda, there was little recourse from that agenda. If you were interested in something else—presuming you heard about it at all—you could pursue it in the daily newspapers, but most daily newspapers were also narrow. Believe it or not, in the decades before the Internet, most people did not read the The New York Times. They read some local tabloid that buried the few articles about, say, world news deep into the interior unless there was a sex scandal or gruesome massacre.

Consensus of a few

Of course, there were specialty magazines that filled in some of the holes. Whether you were interested in swamp clearance or model railroads, you could probably find some monthly or quarterly journal to feed your curiosity. If you couldn’t afford a subscription, you could try to convince your local public library to get it for you. Great. One magazine. Once a month. Maybe.

But, perhaps you still bemoan our current state because at least back then we had a national consensus about what topics matter, and what our values are.

Baloney.

The consensus about what mattered back then was the consensus of news editors, a privileged group generally trying to do their level best. They deserve the credit we pay them for their honesty and occasional courage. But they did not speak for all of us. They could not because no one can. Back in the 1960s, when public officials were jettisoned and shamed for being homosexuals, the nightly news reported it without adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Likewise, basic racism and misogyny were assumed, confirmed and reconfirmed.

You can’t blame people for being of their time. I say this as a privileged white man who did not escape the sins of his time. This isn’t about blame.

But it is about what we mean when we say that someone was “of his time.” No. We are of our time and place. The place of the white men who brought us our news was exclusively, and then mainly, white, middle and upper-class America. Within that place one can talk about a rough consensus. And the rest of those places, American and global, simply had no place in the broadcast, at least no place that the white elders did not permit them.

The choice

I am not saying that the nightly news should have been all things to all people. I’m saying it couldn’t have been. Now we can see that. Every time we open a browser we have it proved to us that there was always more news than could ever have fit. And we see that the requisite filtering is always down from a point of view, from a place.

So we have lost the illusion of consensus, and gained many more tons of news.

Of course all is not peachy. It turns out that left on our own, we can make our own places as insular as the national news always was. We can more easily become hyper-partisan ... although right-wing cable news has been a lead contributor to that, not just the Net.

Still, given the choice of the 22-minute Nightly News by White Guys broadcast or the Internet with all of its problems, for me the choice is clear.

And that’s the way it is.


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