When you read old books, something you will notice is that intellectuals a century ago had a better sense of history. They did not “remember” things that happened before their time, of course, but they knew a lot about the past. Therefore, their sense of history was broader than what you see today. For most people in this age, history started somewhere around when they began to notice things. This makes for a strange sense of history, particularly for young people, as they have not been around long.
This is something that Oswald Spengler addressed in The Decline of the West, with the ancient Greeks. An interesting point he makes is that because the Greeks did not create monuments for their dead, like elaborate tombs or cemeteries, they could not build a timeline from the lives of their heroes. The Egyptians, on the other hand, would always know they were an ancient people, because they lived and died in the shadows of great monuments built by their ancestors to venerate their ancestors.
The claim is debatable, but a people’s sense of time is not universal. If you are a people without a belief in an afterlife, it will shape how you live this life, compared to those who believe in judgement after death. The possibility of eternal damnation not only alters behavior, it is a daily reminder of the brevity of a man’s life. Similarly, if you know, or at least assume, you will die young, you’re going to live fast. That is the whole basis of the “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” ethos of the rock star.
In modern America, the past is a foreign country to most people, even for those with an interest in history. The reason is our present is not littered with reminders of those who came before us. America has always been a live fast, die young country, so we have never centered our culture on people and events of the past. In a few weeks we will have “Memorial Day” and few people can say what it is we memorialize. What it means to most Americans is the start of summer and the consumption of summer product.
There is something to say for the live fast, die young ethos, but it makes it easy to repeat the same mistakes over and over. We see this with the mass media, which is in low regard at the moment. The inability to remember before yesterday has people thinking this is a new thing, rather than the normal state of affairs. Matt Taibbi thinks the media wrecked itself in the 1990’s, with the Lewinsky scandal. Their covering up for the Clintons was the start of the collapse of journalism and the reputation of the media.
While it was certainly a shabby performance, it was not all that different from what went on the 1980’s and it was not worse than what happened in the 1970’s. If you want to put down a marker as the starting point of modern advocacy journalism, the Watergate scandal is where it all started. That’s when narrative journalism bloomed and it made some reporters rich and famous. Since then, every upper middle-class kid entering journalism school, has dreamed of being Bob Woodward and taking down a Republican president.
The reality though, is the media has always been advocacy. There was never a time when news reporters were objective or conformed to a set of ethics. In fact, the idea of journalistic ethics is an entirely new thing. The reporters in the 1920’s would have laughed themselves silly if someone scolded them about their ethics. The newspaper man was a carouser who lived rough and played rough. Until after World War II, being in the media was a working class job with the morality of carny folk.
It is this inability to think clearly about the past that has people like Taibbi confused about what’s happening in the media. Because what’s happening is new to him, he assumes it must be new. This cultural amnesia is also why the media started thinking of itself as a priesthood back in the 1960’s. The well-scrubbed college graduates from good families showing up in newsrooms just assumed it had always been a profession for beautiful people. After all, they had never experienced anything otherwise.
The fact is, the only thing different about the media today is the scale and the uniformity of opinion. In prior ages, both sides of the political class had their media, so there was competition. As the political class collapses into a monolith, the mass media is following in the same path. The difference between Fox News and CNN is quite small, once you get past the theatrics. Sean Hannity having an aneurysm over the latest attack on Trump is the flip side of Don Lemon squealing about Trump’s last tweet.
Probably the one real difference in the modern media compared to the past, is that we are saturated with it today. In the old days, communist countries would put up loudspeakers in the middle of small towns to broadcast propaganda. Today we have the internet, mobile phones and cable television. The agit-prop is everywhere and in the case of the internet, it is actively spying on us. Our rulers are now installing listening devises in our homes in order to make sure we are consuming the correct media products.
If you are over the age of 50, you recall a time when consuming mass media was something you did on the train to work or when you got home. There were morning papers and evening papers. The evening television news was an hour. First you had the local news then the national news. If you wanted to consume a discussion of public affairs, you did so on Sunday morning. Within living memory it was easy for a man to be completely free of politics and mass media. Today it is close to impossible.
What we are seeing today, in terms of media status, is probably just a return to the historic norm. Media companies are slashing their payrolls, because there’s no money in advocacy, at least not enough to warrant lavish salaries. More and more news is being reported by low paid kids and crafty independents with a specialty. Opinion writing is becoming a hobby again. The future of mass media is the past, where the business is to sell a point of view and live like carny folk on the fringes of society.
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