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Discuss this column in the Media & Current Events forum of Post & Riposte.

Previous In Media Res columns:

"You Say You Want a Revolution? (You'd better free your mind instead)" (April 2, 1997)
On "push," the digital nation, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Bonfire of the Pieties" (March 5, 1997)
In Virtuous Reality, Jon Katz calls for a truce in the media culture wars. So why is he fanning the flames?

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Out of Context

What happens when the media become our reality? It's a question cyberjournalists ought to ask themselves

by Wen Stephenson

The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.

--George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context (1981)

June 11, 1997

I've been without television now for more than two weeks. How could this be so? It's quite simple, really. My wife and I recently moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to another town near Boston, and in the process of uprooting ourselves we had to unplug the TV set. In the old place we subscribed to cable, paying our dues to the local monopoly for the privilege of connection to the American mainstream. In the new place we've yet to have the cable switched on (and our TV has no antenna).

There are symptoms of withdrawal. I'll admit to a certain anxiety, an unsettling awareness of being cut off from the world. And there is the sensation not only that the shape and texture of my surroundings have changed but also that something more -- the atmosphere itself, even -- is different, alien. The remote control lies useless on top of the darkened box. The constant background hum and clamor of news and advertising jingles is replaced by a strange quieted stillness. It's just me, my books (most of them still in their boxes), stacks of old magazines, the Sunday paper (last week's news). And the sound of birds outside my window. Can it be real, this world without television?

*  *  *

It's hard to pinpoint just where in the past four or five decades the process began, but by now it's practically a truism to say that all media, including the online media, have come to resemble television -- or at least to pay tribute to its authority. As television became the dominant cultural force in America, for the first time a truly "mass media" context was created, in which it was possible to confuse social reality with an ersatz one manufactured for mass consumption. Today, when newspapers spend much of their time reporting on "personalities" and "events" (images and soundbites) that are created for and exist solely within the media, when magazines that were once concerned primarily with the critique of politics and literature and the arts are filled with articles that mimic TV's self-enthralled cult of celebrity, so that everything becomes a kind of entertainment feeding off itself -- when these things happen all around us and most of the time we don't even notice, the confusion is complete.

George W. S. Trow, in a 1980 essay for The New Yorker titled "Within the Context of No Context" (published as a book in 1981 and recently reissued in an expanded edition), offers a devastating, if idiosyncratic, commentary on how the frame of reference created by television expanded to subsume other media. In a section called "Magazines in the Age of Television," he zeros in on the example of People magazine:
People, like most of the efforts in print that reflect its concern with celebrities, provides an ad hoc context within which may be placed, each week, certain scraps of synthetic talk which have been judged to have the power to reinforce the ad hoc context so that the ad hoc context may, for a moment, seem to exist.... All of this is, of course, within the mode of the television talk program -- the most effective of all ad hoc contexts. It is difficult to translate into print.
Difficult, but -- as Trow saw -- not impossible. By now we take the sleight-of-hand for granted.

Trow interviewed People's managing editor, eliciting a lengthy discourse on the magazine's editorial philosophy circa 1980. "We put someone on the cover," the editor explains, "when certain outside forces are at work. A hit record. A hit movie. Best of all, a television special or a major news story." Hit records, movies, TV shows, news stories, all floating together in the same sphere of reality, given equivalence within the context of the magazine's pages. Today, the eruption of nearly indistinguishable magazine covers jostling for attention on our newsstands represents the triumph of the People format, and may say more about the power of television than any Madison Avenue marketing study or any statistic from the Annenburg School for Communication.
For more along these lines, see Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) -- a powerful critique of the way television has fundamentally altered our society's ability to discuss important issues.

Also of interest is James Fallows's Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996), an exerpt from which -- "Why Americans Hate the Media" -- appeared as The Atlantic's February, 1996, cover story.
Trow's central argument -- that television broke up a world dominated by a print context, hierarchy, and sense of history, and replaced it with a context of no-context, no-authority, no-history -- captures the essence of a media culture in which news is entertainment, entertainment is news, and political discourse is "synthetic talk" leading nowhere.

*  *  *

What happens when our media -- not just television but everything, new and old, that rivals and emulates it -- become our reality? For journalists, and online journalists in particular, the question is especially pressing. We've reached a point where more and more often the media, rather than being merely the vehicles of our stories about the world, are the story. No longer just another beat (belonging to the old-fashioned press critic), "the media" are now perceived by those who work in them as something larger: a context -- perhaps The Context -- in which everything happens.

The result is a kind of meta-journalism, or journalism about journalism and the media, that has become increasingly prominent. For the meta-journalist, to comment or report on a "media event" is to comment or report on the objective reality of the world in which we live. For the meta-journalist, the media is more than a stage on which events that take place "out there" in the world are depicted: it's the entire theater. And history becomes a play within the play.
Related link:

"A Show About Nothing" (Feed, May 21, 1997)
The Nation's Katha Pollitt, Salon's Scott Rosenberg, and Feed's own Steven Johnson comment on Within the Context of No Context.

"How Powerful Is Advertising?"(Atlantic, June 1997)
See Randall Rothenberg's review of Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World.
If, as Trow argued, the work of television has been to create the context of no-context and then to chronicle its making, then the promise of new interactive media has been the undoing, to whatever extent possible, of the damage wrought on our culture by television's dominance. Not in any kind of reactionary way (as, one suspects, Trow might prefer) -- but in a progressive and even, as we've all heard by now, revolutionary sense. If the effect of television has been to demolish the structures defining an objective social reality and differentiating the various media from one another, then the Web, and especially its serious efforts at interactive journalism -- The Netizen on Hotwired, for example, or the Dialogs ("electronic roundtables") pioneered by Feed, or the forums here on The Atlantic's site -- are supposed to help us break out of television's all-encompassing, endlessly self-referential circle. Interactivity would reconnect journalists to readers and readers to one another, building new communities where our demographics-obsessed corporate media had obliterated the old ones. (Granted, the new "communities" would be virtual, but we may be beyond the point where such distinctions are relevant. Virtual, one could argue, is better than nothing.)

And yet, despite the promises and the hype (or, perhaps, because of them), nowhere is the new meta-journalism more pervasive than on the Web. It may be no exaggeration to say that "media criticism" has become the most prevalent and, I hate to say, most fashionable mode of online journalism. Alas, the column you're reading falls, ironically and inescapably, into this category.

Where Meta-Journalists Roam
Think I'm exaggerating? Judge for yourself. Below are links to many of the Net's most prominent Webzines and news services. All are high-quality sites. Some are more media-obsessed than others.

  • Feed
  • Hotwired
  • Salon
  • Slate
  • Suck
  • Wired News
  • Word

    Related link:

    "Making the 'Zine" (The Washington Post, May 28, 1997)
    The Post's media critic Howard Kurtz recently sized up several of the Webzines.
  • If the media is a preoccupation among print and broadcast journalists, insinuating its way into much of what they write and produce, for online journalists it borders on an obsession. Browsing the home pages of leading Web publications, from Webzines to online-only news services, it can be difficult at times to find original writing -- much less actual reporting -- that does not in some way have the media, including the entertainment business, as the topic. Rather than set us free from the media context created by television, the Webzines too often only immerse us in it further, weaving an ever denser, thicker cocoon of self-reflexivity. Whatever the reasons -- marketing, the rush to "go daily" (and the pressure to be up-to-the-minute), editors whose backgrounds (like my own) are not in "hard news" but in "softer" cultural and literary journalism, the pure excitement of working in new media and the feeling of participating in something historic -- "cyberjournalists" seem to see their roles primarily as critics of the old media and defenders, promoters, and (most importantly) interpreters of the new.

    So, you might ask, doesn't this column only contribute to the problem? It's a fair question. After all, only a navel-gazing meta-journalist (and perhaps a hypocritical one at that) would try to be a media critics' critic. My point, however, is not that media criticism is unimportant or that we should cease to write it, but rather that if the Web is to mature as a journalistic medium and live up to its promise, cyberjournalists will need to extend their gaze beyond the realm of media and entertainment and make a greater effort to cover issues that really matter to the lives of their readers. The media -- its impact on politics and society, its future -- is, to be sure, one of those issues. But it is only one. It's time to kick the habit, step out of context, and do the hard work of looking at the world through new eyes, free of the reflexive lens.

    Do journalists, and especially cyberjournalists, spend too much time covering the media? Join me in Post & Riposte's Media & Current Events forum and let me know what you think (unless, of course, you're sick of the media and have more important things to talk about). --W.S.

    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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