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vr_cvr picture March 5, 1997

Bonfire of the Pieties

In his new book, Virtuous Reality, and his accompanying Media Rant "Tour," Hotwired's Jon Katz fans the flames of the media culture wars

by Wen Stephenson

The morning I'd vowed to start writing this first In Media Res column (the name, of course, is a play on the Latin phrase in medias res, which means "into the midst of things" and carries pretentious literary overtones), I indulged my weekend habit of getting sucked into the Sunday New York Times -- that black hole of procrastination known to writers long before the advent of the Web. The cover story of The New York Times Magazine -- an article by Philip Weiss on "The Clinton Haters" and the web of conspiracy theories they have woven around the White House -- informed me that "because of new forms of communication like talk radio and the Internet, a significant portion of the population has developed an understanding of Bill Clinton as a debased, even criminal politician." Circumventing the traditional media, which they believe to be in league with Washington, many of these people, known as "Clinton crazies," also spread their paranoia via other forms of "new media" such as mail-order video and printed newsletters. What's obviously discomfiting to Weiss and his editors at The Times is that so much of the country seems to have lost faith in "the East Coast media" and the "official version of events" they attempt to sell to the nation. (It should be noted, however, that the media being attacked by the "crazies" are by no means exclusively East Coast or print-based.) As it turns out, I couldn't have found a better article to launch me into my first In Media Res topic -- the new book by Jon Katz, Virtuous Reality (Random House, 1997), and the media culture wars into the midst of which Katz so rudely plops his readers.

Since the appearance over a year ago of his Media Rant column on Hotwired's political "channel," The Netizen, Jon Katz -- also a media critic for Hotwired's print parent, Wired -- has become a darling of what one might call the interactive Left. Katz is a provocative, freewheeling writer, and discourse on the Web about the media and politics would be poorer and certainly less engaging if not for his Netizen column. It's not too surprising, then, that Virtuous Reality -- subtitled "How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits and Blockheads like William Bennett" -- has created a stir and received widely mixed reviews. But all publicity is good publicity, as Katz and his publisher surely know, and he's had more than his share of it recently, in virtually all kinds of media, including some uncalled-for personal attacks (Slate slagged him off with a review titled "Katz on the Cross: The Martyrdom of St. Jon of Cyberspace," in which he was compared to -- no kidding -- the Unabomber). Katz has stayed right on top of it all, devoting his Netizen column to dispatches from the Virtuous Reality book tour, responding to critics as fast as they can disparage his credentials, his motives, and the medium in which he (mostly) works.

Rather than jump on the Katz-bashing bandwagon, I'm much more interested in looking at what Katz has to say and how he says it. What is Katz's message in Virtuous Reality? Briefly, it goes something like this:

We are in the midst of a "cultural civil war" that is raging between the forces of old media and "traditional" values on one side and those of new media, popular culture, youthful rebellion, and apparently even freedom and democracy on the other. The forces fearfully defending "tradition" and "morality" are represented by a relatively new character Katz calls the "Mediaphobe," and the 1990s are the decade of mediaphobia. As Katz puts it, "A nation bitterly divided on an array of issues from gun control to Medicaid can unite on this: New media, popular culture, modern information technology -- all of it endangers our young, corrodes our civic sphere, decivilizes us all." The "Sensible Person," Katz goes on to say, understands that this whole cultural conflict is ultimately pointless. We don't have to choose between old media and new. We must learn to live at peace in a world where they coexist. To achieve this condition of social harmony Katz calls for "a truce in the media wars," and offers up a "Media Mantra" for our age, to be repeated by parents and politicians, that should help us all to deal with new media and the generations growing up with them.

From Virtuous Reality (Random House, 1997)

The Media Mantra

It's not that complicated. I can figure this out. I can make my own decisions about media, values and morality. I don't have to choose between traditional culture and the new media. I can live a happy and fulfilling life even if I never see the World Wide Web.

Whatever they should or shouldn't watch, however much time they spend online, my children are not dumb and they're not in danger from movies, TV shows, music or computers. Many children -- especially underclass children -- really are suffering from horrific violence, and they need more and better parenting, better schools, fewer guns and drugs and lots of job opportunities. If I'm so worried about kids, I will help them.

If I really want to protect my own children, I will make sure they have more, not less, access to this new cultural and technological world. I won't ever call them stupid for watching things I don't like. I don't have to be at war with them. I can work out a social contract with my children that protects them, guides them through their new culture and brings peace and rationality to our house.


Copyright 1997 by Jon Katz. All rights reserved.
Most valuable in Virtuous Reality are two central chapters on sex and violence in the media in which Katz contends that alarmist reporting on the (unproven) effects of television, film, video, and music on kids' behavior is distracting us from the real causes of children's suffering: poverty, guns and drugs, poor education, and poor parenting. His point -- that new media and pop culture too often serve as scapegoats for deep social ills that the defenders of "traditional values" don't want to face up to -- is a good one. What's so dismaying is that this argument at the center of his book is nearly drowned out by his own self-righteous refrain decrying "the relentlessly hostile and alarmist coverage of the new information culture" by the mainstream media. Katz wants to inject common sense into the public debate about new media and popular culture, which is surely an admirable goal, but first he lumps all of his opponents together into a single mediaphobic class that is not concerned about "real problems" but instead suffers from no less than "an anxiety disorder, an increasingly irrational spiral of often unwarranted fears." Far from honoring the truce he himself proposes, Katz lashes out at the politicians and journalists (nitwits, blockheads, and opportunists all) supposedly arrayed against him, and he fans the flames of the culture wars while preaching the world-saving virtues of all things digital, decentralized, and interactive. His tactic appears to be: fight alarmism with alarmism and piety with piety.

For Katz, everything comes down to the sacred principle of interactivity, and his inflammatory rhetoric springs from a conviction that those developing and using the new interactive media are the vanguard of a revolution that is transforming our whole social and political existence. Nowhere is this upheaval played out more clearly than in the reactions of traditional journalists to unruly new media such as the Internet and talk radio. As evidence, Katz would no doubt point to an article like Philip Weiss's in The Times Magazine that employs familiar stereotypes to portray the Internet and other alternative media as dangerous hotbeds of irrational conspiracies. "The entry of 'anyone and everyone' into the news business," Katz writes, "has shaken the old order right down to its wingtips," and he goes on to lecture to the old-media "dinosaurs" that they must adapt, become interactive, or die. Forget the fact that for publishers the Web is the most economically efficient distributional medium ever invented. What's shaking the world to its core is the fact that the devoted readers of Katz's Media Rant column can e-mail back to him and post their appreciations or flames in The Netizen's user forum -- as though a cacophony of individual voices sounding off on controversial topics somehow replaces or improves upon the actual gathering and reporting of news by trained, experienced, and responsible journalists.

Interactivity is to Katz the contemporary equivalent of what freedom of the press was to his hero, Thomas Paine -- namely, the only guarantor of the rights of man and of republican government itself. Katz portrays himself and other online journalists who embrace interactivity as firebrands rousing the common folk with straight talk that pierces the pretensions and propaganda of an oppressive and anti-democratic ancien régime. Drawing explicit comparison between Paine's pamphleteering and the kind of unbridled exchange of opinion that occurs on the Internet, Katz points to the impact on revolutionary America of Paine's Common Sense, which was our first best-seller -- more than 120,000 copies sold in the first three months and perhaps as many as 500,000 in the first year, at a time when the country had a population of 3 million. Paine's values may not be relevant or respectable in today's corporate journalism, Katz says, but "they fit the Net like a glove." The implication is that online broadsides, such as those posted on The Netizen and in other interactive forums, are the revolutionary tracts of our own day.

But wait. In order for Katz's online rantings to reach one-sixth of the population -- and have an impact approaching that of Paine's -- The Netizen would need an audience of some 50 million people. Even if that many Americans are currently using the Internet (and that's a big if), the kind of political "discourse" Katz champions takes place among a tiny minority made up of serious Webheads, wonks, and cranks. Though I respect the importance of interactivity in online journalism, I have to say that Katz's sense of the Net's revolutionary impact is inflated and misplaced. The only medium today that can reach an audience comparable to the one Paine enjoyed is television. Katz doesn't seem to recognize how relatively limited a reach even popular Webzines like Hotwired really have, or the extent to which he and others online are preaching to the converted. Or maybe he does. Maybe his whole purpose in writing, of all things, a book, was to gain more attention than is possible online.

In a recent Media Rant dispatch from the Virtuous Reality book tour Katz expressed his surprise at Hollywood's lack of interest in the Internet. The reason should be obvious: the entertainment industry is about money, big money, and therefore cares only about reaching the largest possible audience. Until the Web competes with (or finally merges into) television as the country's dominant mass medium, Hollywood -- and, for that matter, the political and journalistic establishments -- will see it for what it is: an alternative medium still outside the mainstream of American culture, wielding about as much influence as the alternative print publications from which the Web draws so many of its writers and editors. Katz and his groupies, The Netizen, even Atlantic Unbound and yes, you, dear Reader/User, may indeed represent a vanguard of sorts. But like any vanguard, we're so far removed from mainstream society that our impact on the political and cultural life of the country -- though relentlessly hyped and exaggerated -- is little felt. The revolution Katz and his fellow Netizens yearn for remains only a potential revolution, and one that isn't getting any likelier as the Web becomes a commercial mass medium. Who would've thought that Jon "Common Sense" Katz and the folks at Hotwired would be the ones in need of a reality check?

In Media Res is an interactive column. You can give me a piece of your mind in Post & Riposte's Media & Current Events forum. I look forward to hearing from you.
-- Wen Stephenson

Wen Stephenson (wen@theatlantic.com) is editorial director of The Atlantic's New Media department.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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