The Good Ol’ Days of Media

The old media are dying, and Tina Brown mourns their passing. That she is one of the causes of the death of old media, and another reason to celebrate it, seems not to have occurred to her.
For those of you who are enviably unaware of Tina Brown, she used to be a big deal in the old media. After making a name for herself in the rough-and-tumble Fleet Street journalism of her native England, she emigrated to the United States in the ’80s to edit Vanity Fair and became as notable a celebrity as any of the rich and famous subjects of that plutographic magazine’s posterior-kissing stories. In the early ’90s she took control of The New Yorker, where she cured that one-venerable publication’s stodgy reputation for literary excellence with an infusion of Vanity Fair-style frivolousness. The resulting revival of The New Yorker’s fortunes made her such a sensation that she signed a lucrative deal with Miramax Films to become a multi-media mogul, which resulted in the short-lived and utterly forgettable Talk Magazine and a boutique publishing house that released titles by the likes of Queen Noor of Jordan and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of Clintonland. Since then she’s started The Daily Beast, which is one of the internet’s more widely read sites but a mere internet site nonetheless, and when the site bought comatose Newsweek for the bargain basement price of $1 she wound up as editor of that. Now she’s written a whopper of an editorial for The Daily Beast about the media in wake of the sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky, and the unsurprising gist of it is that she’s nostalgic for the good old days when she was a big deal.
The editorial is well worth reading, as it is a masterpiece of self-serving snarkiness and a perfectly illustrative example of what is really killing off the old media. She opens with worries that Lewinsky’s recent reappearance in the news “plunges us straight back into the frothing world of ’90s gossip,” as if she had not become rich and famous in that same frothing world, but bravely marches into her subject because “It may be painful but it answers so many questions about today’s media.” The pain apparently derives from having to recall l’affaire Lewinsky, with its “appalling cast of tabloid gargoyles who drove the scandal.” She doesn’t mean the serial sexual predator who used his position as President of the United States to exploit a starry-eyed and dim-witted twenty-something in his employ, but rather those nasty people who told the truth about it. Even after all these years Brown feels obliged to heap scorn on Linda Tripp, who was dragged into the scandal because she had the misfortune to befriend Lewinsky, and is described by Brown as a “treacherous thatched-roof-haired drag-queen” with “dress-for-success shoulder pads. Conservative commentator and activist Lucianne Goldberg gets similarly snooty treatment, being described as a “cackling, fact-lacking hack.” Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who did the job he was given by Congress all too diligently, is explained as a “mealy-mouthed Pharisee.” The greatest object of Brown’s scorn, however, is the pioneering internet journalist who broke the Lewinsky scandal with a post about how Newsweek had nailed down the story but declined to run it. “Hitting ‘send’ on each new revelation that no one else would publish, the solitary, perfectly named Matt Drudge,” is how Brown introduces the real villain of her piece, “operating in pallid obsession out of his sock-like apartment in Miami.”
None of Brown’s “tabloid gargoyles” were using the Oval Office of the White House to do cigar tricks with a young woman who would soon be subjected to their politics of personal destruction, nor were they guilty of the tawdry and boorish behavior by the president that soon were revealed in the light of the Lewinsky investigation, but Brown somehow faults them for “driving” the scandal. There would have been no scandal to drive if Clinton had acted as a responsible married president rather than a lecherous reprobate, but Brown apparently finds that more forgivable than telling the truth about a politician with the correct opinions and right party affiliation. What’s most unforgivable, in Brown’s telling of the saga, is that “The press was at the height of its power when the Monica story began, and Drudge was its underbelly. The ascendant media that looked down on him has been pretty much destroyed.”
This is a bad thing, Brown explains because it is “how the death of privacy started.” She’s not referring to the National Security Agency’s snooping into every American’s phone records, or the mysteriously unsealed divorce records of candidates who challenge Barack Obama or formerly anonymous plumbers who ask him questions that provoke controversial answers, or the Internal Revenue Service’s illegal interest in the donors who contribute to causes the president dislikes, or any of the other troubling concerns about privacy that have nothing whatsoever to do with conservative journalism, but rather the outrageous idea that a president can’t exploit an intern without having to read about it on some arriviste web site. Perhaps Brown would hold steadfast to the same conviction that what happens inside the Oval Office isn’t a legitimate matter of public interest even when a Republican occupies it, but there is reason for doubt. We can’t recall Brown complaining about the Special Prosecutor who spent millions hunting for imaginary witches in the phony-baloney Valerie Plame investigation that dogged the Bush administration and found nothing but a small fish named “Scooter” telling an inconsequential lie about a scandal that didn’t happen in the first place, and we can’t imagine her ever employing such mean-girl insults against any women on her side of the political divide no matter how thatched-roof-haired or cackling they might be.
So long as it’s acceptable to speculate in print about others’ motives, we’ll venture that Brown is mostly miffed that the once-ascendant media that are still looking down their patrician noses at the upstarts have indeed pretty much been destroyed. For Brown, who enjoyed considerable prestige, power, and an unequal income in the ancien regime, it must be a bitter disappointment to see the likes of Matt Drudge with millions more readers and vastly greater power to make the public aware of a story. That these uncouth sorts who would have never besmirched the pages of Vanity Fair or The New Yorker during Brown’s reign are using that usurped power to expose facts that don’t serve Brown’s preferred politics is surely all the more galling. Lewinsky made her comeback in Vanity Fair, the folks who bought Newsweek for a dollar are now looking to sell it at all, the only television news organization that concerns itself with Democratic scandals is trouncing the competition in the ratings war, and obscure internet sites from obscure places such as Wichita, Kansas, are snearing back at Brown, and that has to hurt as well. Ah, for the good old days of monopoly media and unchallenged opinion-making power when a president could exploit an intern in the Oval Office or lie about a terrorist attack without any pesky questions being asked.
We can well understand such nostalgia, as we were working for a mid-sized newspaper back in the days after every town had been reduced to one daily and before talk radio and the internet and new means of classified advertising changed everything. The money was good, better than in most of the industries that the editorialists railed against for their corporate greed, and there was a satisfying sense of power in hearing the fear in a politician’s voice when you called up with a good question, and there was an even more seductive sense of power in knowing that anyone who wanted to know where the Kansas City Royals stood in the American League Western Division standings or the latest quote on that hot stock they bought or which of their neighbors had recently been arrested had to pony 50 cents for the latest copy of whatever we decided to print. For all their cocksure predictions about the dire future that others were inflicting on the world the titans of journalism never saw the cataclysm that was coming in their own industry, and most still refuse to acknowledge it even as they preside over the death throes of the once-grand institutions they somehow inherited. Technological change was a contributing factor, but just as important was a failure by those titans of journalism to recognize that they could no longer suppress any facts that were not to their liking.
That was another change in journalism, and one that the new technology was required to fix. In an era prior to Tina Brown the solitary fellow in the sock-like apartment putting out each new revelation that no one else would publish was a heroic figure than an object of ridicule, and Drudge would have been considered fitting because of the drudgery that is always involved in getting at the truth. That was an era when journalism was expected to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” an old cliché that journalists still spout when they’ve had a few too many to realize how very ridiculous it now sounds, and we doubt that Tina Brown would have found it any more comfortable than these changing times.

— Bud Norman

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