The Media Kvetch

Of course they chose Katie Couric, that lightweight.... Don't get me started on newspapers. Nobody believes them, that's why they're tanking.... The Internet? Please, all those narcissists and their tedious blogs.

Sound familiar? This is the voice of The Media Kvetch. It's all around us. It says that the media are morally bankrupt, going to pot. Journalism is shoddy. Bias is everywhere. Celebrity and violence rule. There's nobody you can trust.

This week, several academic studies were released blaming the media (including video games and ads) for childhood obesity, consumerism, and other social problems. The Associated Press and other outlets ran stories. My favorite headline was in The Kansas City Star: "Studies Link Media to Modern Ills."

It's all our fault, literally. The media are just evil.

But reality refutes this argument on a daily basis. In the news media specifically, there are more well-crafted stories and arguments produced than anyone could possibly consume. Spend an hour sometime exploring the news sections of Google and Yahoo!—the pond is wide and deep.

So why the kvetch? Because the landscape is changing quickly, and change is threatening. Not so long ago, only a handful of outlets had mass reach, and they felt manageable. Today, if you include blogs and other new options, there are millions of potential mass outlets, and they're all trying to get on your screen.

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When you see one you don't much like—whether it's The New York Times, Fox News, or Joe Blogger—there's a tendency to impute to it the power the establishment outlets had in their heyday, when there was no countervailing force. Thus, if they make a mistake or do something cheesy, it's a cause for outrage. But today there is a countervailing force. For The New York Times, it's Fox News and Joe Blogger.

I want to propose that The Media Kvetch is wrong. Not a little wrong or occasionally wrong, but absolutely blind to reality—and kind of crazy. And we should send it packing.

Contrary to popular belief, this era may be a kind of high-water mark in the evolution of media, precisely because of all the flux. Ignore the kvetch for a second and think about this: Thanks to technology's ferment, we have all these new media. Yet at the same time, the old outlets are still very much with us. Not a single pre-Internet medium has died yet, though predictions of their demise are issued every day. And not only do old and new coexist, but they are actually learning from each other. Big newspapers and television networks now sponsor blogs, while countless blogs are trying to acquire the reputations and readership those old-time outlets still enjoy.

Every assumed negative about today's media universe obscures an underlying positive. A few examples:

1) Newspapers are dying. Perhaps, but right now they are still breathing and, as James Surowiecki noted in The New Yorker last week, still very profitable. At the moment, we get to pick between a hard copy that costs practically nothing, and a screen version that is almost always free. Enjoy it while it lasts.

2) Television is getting dumber. Quantitatively, it's unquestionably true that there is more dumb TV than smart. But this is nothing new. Dancing With the Stars will always trump The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. But the fact is, there is more of both smart and dumb in today's buffet than there has ever been before. Dumb is a choice.

3) Gravitas is dead. This is the alleged Katie Couric problem—not serious enough to be an anchor. Have you ever watched clips from the supposed glory days of the old TV anchors? They were not as compelling as some remember. A day may well arrive when no media company in its right mind will shell out tens of millions of dollars for a real journalist like Couric, who has creditably covered serious beats (e.g., the Pentagon) in her career. Couric is a hybrid creature, old-media grounding crossed with entertainment-age glam. We could do much, much worse. And someday, we probably will.