My conservative instinct says there’s really nothing new under the sun. Technology almost by definition is developed to solve problems (necessity, recall, is invention’s mommy). But, as conservative philosophy teaches us, the “problems” of the human condition are permanent. So while technology is ever changing, the human desires we try to satisfy with technology remain constant. For example, every innovation in mass media has been a boon to the porn industry. You can be sure that when we finally create holographic technology, it’ll be put to good triple-X use long before we have a chance to see “Hamlet” in digital 3-D.
Boosters of the brave new World Wide Web and mourners of “traditional” media alike share a common view that the way the news media has operated over the last half-century is the “normal” way. Both sides think the Internet is more unprecedented and revolutionary than it is. In reality, the crumbling status quo was always an aberration.
For various reasons, the post-World War II generation was unusually trusting of big institutions and elites. It grew up with the first real national media outlets. Following on the heels of radio, TV further united the nation. Network news anchors had what CBS News executive Jim Murphy calls “the voice of God.” A handful of media outlets, almost all of them based in a sliver of Olympian Manhattan, dictated the terms of the national conversation. This was the era of the “vital center,” when the establishment was marked by an astounding level of consensus. Polarization is actually the American norm.
Lionel Trilling famously summarized the conventional wisdom of 1950 when he declared that “it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” The media reflected this consensus, reporting the news based on a host of moderate, liberal assumptions about everything from foreign policy to economics. Reporters believed in their duty to be objective even if they didn’t always understand that their biases were quite obvious to those, on the left and right, residing outside the elite liberal consensus. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the standard of objectivity itself was partly a product of technological change and partly a rebellion against 19th-century norms.