The Long View 2004-04-02: Innoculation

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

The process, predicted by Glenn Reynolds in National Interest in 1994, of altering the nature of journalism is now quite advanced. The prevalence of both still and motion cameras in nearly everyone's hands has certainly altered content production, since nearly every news item is now accompanied by cellphone video. From the BLS data in the chart above, newspapers have experienced a considerable drop in employment since 1994, almost 300,000 jobs. 

Reynolds prediction that the gatekeeper role of television and newspapers would disappear is probably half true. Lots of people get most of their news from the Internet now, but the survivors of the brutal consolidation process seen in the chart still are pretty influential. In the US, this would certainly include The New York Times, and NPR. Each of these organizations still produces a lot of news, and are still seen as authorities. Each one has a liberal flavor in US terms, but on the whole they both maintain their integrity, although at least in NY Times you need to get pretty deep into the article before anything interesting comes out.

A downside to the fracturing of the media market and consolidation among the survivors is you have fewer and fewer people doing the same work. According to John Schindler, foreign bureaus have often been cut, leaving only a few reporters on site to pass news into the system, which is then passed around by the Associated Press or other news sharing organizations.


Inoculation

You have to wonder: if the Madrid bombings had not just happened, would the American public have been so willing to take the desecration of the merceneries' bodies in Falluja so much in stride? Those video images from Iraq were far worse than anything that came from the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. When pictures of the Black Hawk pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu appeared on television, the morale of the media immediately collapsed, along with whatever support remained for the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Today, some commentators seem eager to collapse again, but most don't, and neither does the general public. This is partly because a consensus has quickly developed that the fall of the Aznar government in Spain was a new Munich. Even public figures who were not very keen on the Iraq War to begin with accepted this view. What happened to those contract guards was just as gruesome as what happened to the Spanish commuters, but few people seem willing to suggest that now America should do what Spain did.

Something else that the public seems to be taking in stride is the 911 Commission testimony of Richard Clarke. Though his memoir, Against All Enemies, has become a must-read (or at least a must-own) among the political class, by most accounts it contains almost no new material. The politically informed public understands this. The politically uninformed public, for their part, recognize a hypocritical campaign tactic when they see one. In fact, one suspects that it is cable-news shenanigans like this that persuades so many people that politics does not merit their full attention.

* * *

But what about the people who watch only entertainment programs, you ask?. The New York Times reports today that the scripts of ordinary television shows increasingly incorporate anti-Bush material:

I have never, ever seen this community more united than right now, never," said Laurie David [wife of Larry David, the star of an HOBO comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm"], who has been active in organizing the creative community against Mr. Bush. "Not a day goes by when I'm not getting a dozen calls from people saying to me, `What can I do?' And it's all with one goal: to change the course of what's going on in this country and get rid of this administration."

I can't confirm this from my own experience; my TV watching is shrinking to programs of the sort that feature Eliza Dushku. Even if it is true, though, this could turn out to be yet another case of the Entertainment Establishment being humiliated in public, as it usually is when it tries to influence politics. The Times article points out that much the same thing happened in 1992, when the entertainment industry gave its product a conspicuous spin in favor of Bill Clinton. That was a close election, and every little bit helped. However, the 1990s saws the explosion of talk radio, the Internet, and politically right-wing outlets on cable. Whatever happened in 1992 will not happen in 2004, at least not in the same way or to the same degree.

* * *

As for politics on the Internet, it has manifested a mischievous tendency to work not at all in the way that was expected. Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. Instapundit, has this to say on the subject the the Spring 1994 National Interest, in the essay The Blogs of War

But it seems safe to say that prewar predictions that the Internet would be a force against war, and in favor of lefty, EU-style moral equivalency human rights advocates, turn out to have been partly right, but not in the way advocates seem to have thought. The Internet turned out to be a stronger force for human rights properly understood than for peace at any price, and the ability of people to use the Internet to bypass traditional organizations with different priorities has made a significant difference. This effect will probably grow larger over time. With the growing ubiquity of digital cameras (including digital video cameras) and broadband Internet access, the gatekeeper role of traditional news media, and other international organizations, is likely to disappear.

Many analyses of the cultural implications of the Internet, such as Erik Davis's Techgnosis and Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy, have focused on the ability of the Internet to host what are almost parallel universes. Paranoids and conspiracy theorists have never had it so good. On the other hand, it does not seem to be true that the Internet is without a hierarchy of credibility. Every worldview may have started equal on the Internet, but webs of criticism and shared information soon developed. Instapundit in particular is one of the key nodes of a network of analysis and reporting that is, if anything, at least as intelligently critical as the world of major newspapers and public-affairs television.

That seems to be the real axis of evolution on the non-commercial Internet. Those parallel universes of conspiracy theorists increasingly look like isolated ecological niches. Strange creatures flourish in them, and the Internet allows many more people to visit them than would otherwise be the case. Still, those niches show little capacity to grow, or even change. When the creatures in them wander onto the main highways of cyberspace, they quickly become road kill.

* * *

On the subject of things that seem to alter very little, I got a sense of deja vu from this recent report about the Martian atmosphere:

A trio of research teams independently probing the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane have found it, a combined discovery that opens the door for a host of theories as to how the gas got there...Since methane has a relatively short lifetime on Mars for atmospheric gases, about 300 years or so, scientists believe there must be some process at work to keep replenishing its concentration in the atmosphere.

As we know, life stinks. The presence of highly reactive gasses, such as methane or oxygen, in a planetary atmosphere is good evidence for biology, if there is no geological explanation for it. There are other possible explanations for Martian methane. Inconspicuous vulcanism is one. Another would be carboniferous meteorites. I suspect, though I don't know, that the isotopic signatures of the carbon from these sources would be distinguishable. However, they can't be distinguished by using orbiters or terrestrial telescopes, which provided the data for these studies. We need a sample of the atmosphere.

The deja vu comes in because NASA announced, during one of the early Mariner missions I believe, that it had discovered methane on Mars, and that there was no explanation for it but organic decomposition. This discovery lasted only a few days; soon someone figured out that the instrument readings could also have been produced by dry ice and CO2, or something of that sort.

Again: are we really much further along than we were in 1970?

* * *

Not all precedents are unhopeful, however. Consider this rather hostile report, from The Washington Times, about the State of Maine's new health care system:

Other states have tried -- and failed -- to create universal health care. Now, Maine intends to show them how it's done. This summer, the state will begin enrolling people in its health care program, called Dirigo -- the state motto and Latin for "I lead." It is aimed at ensuring health care access for all 1.3 million residents.

It occurs to me that this is pretty much what happened with deposit insurance for banks. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states experimented with insuring the savings of depositors, but without much success. The insurance pools were not big enough, and the existence of insured and uninsured banks created a "moral hazard," whereby speculators put their money in insured banks with irresponsibly high returns. When the banking system collapsed nationwide during the Depression in the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created national deposit insurance reluctantly, and almost as an afterthought. To everyone's surprise, a national system solved the century-old problem of unreliable financial institutions. I would not be at all surprised if something similar happened with health insurance.

* * *

And now for Art:

Easter is almost upon us, so I was asked to do yet another poster for the local Latin Mass group. You can find it here. Anyone is welcome, of course. There's coffee in the church basement afterwards.

Speaking of welcoming, I have made this animation using the picture on my website's top page. That's a 1.2 mb file, so be patient.

That animation will probably stay on my site, but the Easter poster will come down after a while: I need the storage space. Another item I am going to take down in the near future is this animated thank-you note I sent to a friend who sent me a Hellboy comic. No, I'm not interested in comics, but I may well see the movie.    

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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