You may or may not be old enough to remember when the Internet was a new thing, but for a long time, web pages were not considered “credible” sources. If you were a serious person trying to make a serious point, you cited books, academic journals, established magazines and venerable old newspapers.
Books are still books, but publishing is more accessible, and more people are aware that a publisher is just someone with a bank account and some means of printing and distribution who is willing to put up some money and do some of the work of publishing for a share of a book’s potential profit. Academic journals are still an arcane, exclusive racket, but a lot of them are just web sites now, too.
Newspapers and magazines have been forced to compete with web sites, and they are losing. Why would anyone bother to subscribe to a newspaper when they can read it online and get updated news in real-time, for free? For the ads and coupons? I’ll admit they are handy for getting coals started when I want to grill a steak, but that’s about it. Brown paper bags work just as well, and they probably burn cleaner.
Certain magazines are still worth keeping around if you have the space. National Geographic, or something special like Lapham’s Quarterly or even VICE. Glossy design magazines are still better than their online editions, if you’re into that sort of thing.
But major news magazines and newspapers have become printed slaves to their online editions. They have to compete for traffic every day with trashy click-bait sites like Upworthy, Gawker and Buzzfeed. Over the past year or so, this seems to have accelerated, and the old printed institutions are becoming indistinguishable from their yellow counterparts.
I have a copy of TIME from 1970 that shows Yukio Mishima’s death scene, with his severed head still sitting on the floor facing the door where he wanted it. The cover story was a forward-thinking report on the organic food movement. TIME famously explored the Nietzschean question, “Is God Dead?” in 1965, opening with a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre. It was always a mainstream magazine, but it at least pretended to be a magazine for serious people.
Last week, one of the big stories at TIME online was “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture.” Reactions to this ridiculous screed about sassy faggots with stolen head snaps were published at New York Magazine, NPR, Slate (A Washington Post property), The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and every smaller web site that wanted to tap into the related “outrage traffic.”
Meanwhile, at The Wall Street Journal, we learn “Why We Need a Female Thor and a Black Batman.” This is now what passes for a “national conversation.”
I checked out the rest of the TIME site while I was writing this. There were some hard news items about politics and real human tragedies abroad, but among their top 10 most popular stories were “10 Excuses Unproductive People Basically Always Use,” “10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On,” Credit Card Companies Really Hope You Don’t Notice This,” “Beyoncé Teases Fifty Shades of Grey Trailer on Instagram,” “The World’s Second-Richest Man Thinks You Should Work Only 3 Days a Week” and “How Overparenting Makes Kids Overweight.” I especially liked, “For Nerds, This Video Is Absolutely Everything.”
As of this writing, The Atlantic seems to be having a semi-serious Sunday, but monthly cover stories this year have included “The Fraternity Problem,” “Closing the Confidence Gap” (On women in business), “The Overprotected Child,” and “A Case for Reparations.” Most of them have been designed to draw attention, surprise or provoke outrage, like any click-bait headline. I don’t even think most black people take the idea of reparations seriously, and with percentages of male enrollment in college lower than ever, an article about the trouble with frats is just another invitation for spoiled college girls to gossip about boys.
I have a hard time believing that the people who write this stuff are even sincere. They’re going for the big story, the most shares, the most tweets, the mention on late night television.
I’m not complaining. In fact, I welcome this development. I love that the mainstream media is getting trashier and easier to dismiss.
It makes people more willing to consider what non-mainstream writers have to say.
American newspapers and magazines started out as soap-boxes for entrepreneurs and ideologues. Hearst drove sales with sensational headlines. Every paper was as unapologetically skewed as The Huffington Post. For a few decades, journalism gained a veneer of respectability based on an assumption of objectivity that was probably always more of a charming fiction than a reality. Now the industry is returning to what it always was — a commercial enterprise catering to base elements of human nature and whipping up madness in crowds.
As the “reputable” papers and magazines become increasingly indistinguishable from TMZ, Jezebel, Upworthy, or Thought Catalog, they burn credibility as legitimate sources and gatekeepers of ideas. They’re down here with the rest of us on the digital street corner, shouting, trying to get people’s attention. If everyone is spinning everything shamelessly and sensationally, people can just pick the spin they like the best, instead of looking to the mainstream media for “serious journalism” and “reasonable viewpoints.”
In 2012, one Gallup poll (whatever that’s worth) found that 60% of Americans don’t trust the mainstream media.
When no one trusts the mainstream media, what happens next could blow your mind . . .