Wednesday, March 25, 2009

This Just In: Inmates Vacate Asylum in Droves

Quick — Name the celebrated TV newsman described in the following passage: “A latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”

No, that’s not a tag line from an ad for Glenn Beck. Or Sean Hannity. Or Lou Dobbs. Or Bill O’Reilly. Or Don Imus. Rush Limbaugh? He’s just angry, but no, it’s not him, either.

Give up? Here’s a hint: Like all the sclerotic mountebanks mentioned above, he was mad as hell and determined not to take it anymore. And like two improbably successful television personalities in our world, he was the darling of a public that lost patience with traditional media and went looking for something funny and revelatory and fresh.

Yes, it's time to welcome back an old favorite, someone who never really left the building.

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Students of modern American film will remember Howard Beale, the fictional “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” in “Network,” written by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. In the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, Beale, in the midst of great personal trauma, departs from his role of script-fed newsreader and embarks on a journalistic crusade that takes on an unexpected, and ultimately tragic, populist dimension.

Central to Beale’s approach of reporting the news was a certain license with the language, a flight from objectivity, and an effort to personalize the relationship between himself and his audience.

Fast-forward thirty-some years: Beale’s reporting philosophy is now the substance of any number of news programs that blend, some better than others, personal commentary with straight reporting of fact. Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly — they all owe their on-camera style, and the audiences that tune in to watch, to a man who never existed.

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Maybe you read the story Wednesday, on the Rasmussen Reports Web site. In its latest national telephone survey, the pollster found something disturbing for print and TV journalists, disgusting for conservatives, and validating for younger Americans:

“Nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 say satirical news-oriented television programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are taking the place of traditional news outlets.

“Thirty-two percent (32%) of adults ages 30-39 believe this to be true, while 42% disagree,” according to Rasmussen’s survey.

“Among all Americans, 24% say programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are taking the place of traditional news venues, but 45% do not think so. Thirty-one percent (31%) are undecided.”

The numbers aren’t overwhelming, and far from a majority, but that’s not the point. What’s so intriguing in the Rasmussen poll is how it reflects the degree to which Americans are reaching beyond the traditional New York-Washington information axis for their daily diet of the news. What’s even more important is what this says about the nature of what news is.

If news is what you found out about today that you can’t stop talking about tomorrow (or, in Internet Time, what you found out ten minutes ago and can’t stop talking about for an hour and a half), it’s clear that the wide-open opportunity for people to shape their own informational agendas has thrown unlikely heroes up the ratings charts. Real life imitates pop culture. Now more than ever, real life imitates Howard Beale.

TV news shows have of course been working to smudge the line between the news and opinion for years. The Rasmussen poll released Wednesday illustrates just how little of that line is left. It reflects how much the newsgathering process is less driven by media professionals and more by average citizens, everyday people who are by turns either throwing rose petals along a parade route or joining a posse to hunt down the monster of the day with rhetorical torches and pitchforks.

And as the economy gets worse or fails to get any better, as mortgages go belly up under water, more of the public goes online with those torches and pitchforks. Not as journalists, not even as bloggers and trolls, but as citizens. Like Howard Beale, they’re mad as hell, too, and they’re not going to take it any more.

Not without raising their own voices. Not without talking back.

The mainstream media has often expressed the populist sea change in information dissemination as “the inmates running the asylum,” citizen journalists and bloggers elevating their voices and their discontent, and (from the MSM’s perspective) gumming up the process of informing and enlightening the American people.

What Wednesday’s Rasmussen poll told them yet again, is that to a great degree, it’s been the major media’s cloistered, top-down, we-know-best, ivory-tower approach to the news that made those Rasmussen poll results possible in the first place.

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The first real victim of the spread of populist media outrage was the media’s sense of its own invincibility, or at least the invincibility of business models convinced that Americans would continue to hunt for the paper on the doorstep in the morning when they went to work or in the evening when they got home; that Americans could be counted on to gather round the rabbit-ears box, same time, same station, to watch the network evening news. That Americans are living the same informational lives today as they were a generation ago.

That happened sometime before the next victim came along: the daily American newspaper industry. Now, with the demise of the dead-tree versions of the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Ann Arbor News, and the contraction of other newspaper staffs, it’s an industry experiencing a death by ten thousand job cuts.

Now, with Colbert and Stewart raised to lofty heights of exposure they probably never envisioned, and a poll that endows that exposure with measurable influence, the mainstream media is crossing its own Rubicon, confronting a lesson they can't learn fast enough:

Without the inmates, there is no asylum.
Image credits: "Network" still: © 1976 MGM. Entertainment Weekly cover: © 2008 Time Inc.

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