John Podhoretz had an interesting column in Tuesday’s New York Post, remarking on the “mass-media meltdown” that is more apparent every day. He writes:
But it can’t be a coincidence that the five major pillars of the American media movies, television, radio, recorded music and newspapers are all suffering at the same time. And it isn’t. Something major has changed over the past year, as the availability of alternative sources of information and entertainment has finally reached critical mass.
It’s not a coincidence. While Podhoretz is correct in asserting that affordable consumer options are a considerable factor in the across-the-board losses being suffered by the media, I do believe that something more is at play here, than mere materialism and convenience.
I think we’re seeing the first evidences of the death of Pop Culture, as brought to you by the once-invincible and insatiable machine of the news/entertainment industry. The mainstream media’s glitzy promotion of itself – of its own ideas and agendas, marketed as trends, sitcoms, music and “distinguished” drama – is no longer succeeding at holding our attention. Subsequently the Pop Culture which was conceived in silent film, nurtured by radio and talkies, brought into the full blossom of adolescence via television and finally into adulthood thanks to cable, is suddenly finding itself old and exhausted and played out.
Something has changed, but what?
Well, we know the media have not changed. Hollywood is still churning out mindless drivel with lots of blood and sex and things blowing up or caving in, but people are no longer fascinated. The music industry has an infinite supply of thumping bass lines, and more emaciated, over-mammaried young women willing to strip down to their bikini-waxes than it can use, but increasingly people are rolling their eyes and saying, “fer cryin out loud, put some clothes on and eat a sandwich!” Radio has shock-and-schlock jocks galore, but people are flipping the dial, and looking for something else, please! And television? Television has provided every American household with a new nightly mantra: “263 channels, and nothing on!”
Of course, there is plenty to watch on television. Several dozen home-improvement shows. Several dozen reality shows. Cooking shows. People playing poker. Sleazy music videos full of pimps and ho’s. Shopping! Vapid sitcoms made up of a guy, a girl, a snarky gay friend, a sexually frustrated woman and the stupid white men who cause all their problems. Cop and medical dramas which can be pretty good, until they start lecturing their audience about society or politics or religion, and exactly what good and noble people should think about those issues.
Alternative sources, iPods, TiVO and the internet have something to do with the diminishing influence of the news and entertainment media in the eyes of the public. Increased options have always pulled some consumers away from the mainstream products, but the media have always been able to woo them back with a flashy new gizmo or an outrageous new idea. That does not seem to be happening anymore.
Consumers of Pop Culture are not merely turning their heads in momentary distraction; they are doing a full-bodied turn away from the media gods and gargoyles which have held them enthralled for nearly 100 years. And the gods are both bewildered and jealous.
A pugilist who has taken a devastating hit and landed on the mat may jump back up insisting all is well, but as he staggers around the ring, the crowd will begin to abandon him; his opponent will let him believe he has regained his footing before delivering the final, crushing right. A blow to a boxers head may not be immediately fatal, but over time its consequences become apparent.
I suggest that when Mohammed Atta and his pals killed 3000 Americans in New York, and a few hundred more in Washington, D.C., they also struck a blow to the Popular Culture and its providers, which buckled their knees and left them breathless. Regrouping, that culture has spent the last four years staggering about the ring on wobbly pins, insisting that they are alright, that nothing has changed, but the crowd, sensing a loser, is starting to jeer. It may never receive a fatal blow, but its championship days are surely behind it.
People are weary of being lectured to by the media and the culture it promotes. They are tired of being told via sitcoms that their values are silly or via senators that the people they elect are losers. They are tired of reading that the traditions they wish to share within their communities are divisive if they insult an atheist, with no corresponding recognition that an atheist’s tirade is often filled with hate. They are sick of turning on a good cop drama, looking for an hour’s simple entertainment, only to learn that people like themselves, who hold with deeply-held religious beliefs, are really monsters of unenlightened hatred. To get away from that, they flip to C-span, just in time to learn that their traditional family units are insultingly heteronormative.
Wherever consumers of mainstream news and entertainment turn they are being lectured to by a punch-drunk media telling them that the terrorists they rightly disrespect are their moral equals, that relativism is truth and truth is unknowable, that their children are incapable of self-restraint, that failure to appreciate their elite and enlightened betters make them “knuckle-dragging, salivating morons.” They listen to elected officials like Ted Kennedy, a so-called icon of public service refer to them – the public he is supposed to be serving – as “Neanderthals.”
The mainstream media have a strong left hook, and they have used it to bludgeon the sensibilities of a trusting, agreeable and curious public for decades. But in the weeks and months after 9/11, the public saw the gods and goddesses of television wonder if their Emmy awards should not be held at a military installation, because, of course, the terrorists would want to hurt our prettiest people. They listened to so-called comedians like Bill Maher suggest that a celebrity pedophile “servicing” a young boy sexually was not as bad as a beating by a schoolyard bully. They watched an old-guard news anchor, on the eve of a national election, promote demonstrably faked documents questioning the military service of one candidate, even as he resolutely refused to ask a single question about the credibly-doubted service of another candidate, and they realized that the towering heavy-weight they had long supported was nothing but a chump who perhaps, finally, needed to be brought down with a good uppercut from the right.
What has happened to the mainstream media, in all of its incarnations, is this: The champion, the Mighty Pop Culture, has taken a hit and gone down. It will probably rise again, but never with the same mythic status of a favorite. Once humbled and brought down, its weaknesses have been exposed; the crowd will watch knowingly, just as ready to jeer as to cheer.
Whether the giant egos who manage from the corners can handle the laughter remains to be seen.