Instantaneous technology — photography, radio, television — allowed people to feel like “you are there.” Of course, the reality is that such technology does not communicate objective truth so much as give the viewer the visceral sensation that it does. The Rodney King video is a good example of how misleading “reality” can be, in that a snippet of video caused riots. When the video was shown at trial, the jury saw something very different.
I’ve toiled in the cyber-fields for close to a decade now (I was the founding editor of National Review Online), and what fascinates me is how the Internet is allowing the nation to return to its historical relationship with the media, not how it’s changing everything.
In the 19th century, newspapers played a different role from the one we think they’re “supposed” to play. Newspapers contributed a sense of community to the boisterous new cities and towns popping up across the country. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the young American democracy thrived on competing “associations” between like-minded citizens. But because these people could never all physically meet, newspapers were essential to American democracy because “newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers.”
American newspapers were never as unapologetically and uniformly partisan as European ones were (and still are), but they were still mostly creatures of specific political biases. There were Republican and Democratic newspapers, populist and communist newspapers, union and anti-union newspapers. These publications served as vehicles for partisan education and crusading personalities, in much the same way leading blogs do today.
Take another look at the most flagrantly partisan Web sites today: the liberal Daily Kos and its conservative doppelganger, Red State. What you see are media outlets trying to serve the same function as newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They’re vehicles for political education and community-organization. Talking Points Memo, has become an avowed home for “muckrakers” with the same partisan zeal of muckrakers of yore. Works in progress, these sites make mistakes. The recent clunker by Truthout.org, which reported that Karl Rove was to be indicted when in fact he was cleared, is nothing compared with the 19th century press’ routine manufacture of events great and small, typified by William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism” to cook up the Spanish-American War.
There will always be a need for serious, professional newsgathering organizations. But there will also always be a need for the politically committed to form their own communities. The Internet is allowing the United States to have both once again.