The Media are the Messages

Suzanne Fields

3/18/2011 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Conservatives love to hate Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist who wrote his last political column on Sunday. But they owe him an accolade or two for recognizing what the relentless production of opinion was doing to his writing. (Other pundits, please copy.)

"That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambitious conclusion," he wrote in his farewell to rage and all that. He's moving to fresh adventures at New York magazine, where he hopes to rediscover nuance, which he displayed in thoughtful abundance in "Ghost Light," his memoir about growing up in Washington, D.C.

His exit from the newspaper coincides with a report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, which documents the radical changes going on in the industry known as media. If Rich's bite of humble pie expresses the way a good writer's curiosity can deteriorate in producing polarized outrage for print, the Pew report tells how the Internet has captured the market for news, something we've known for a while. It's not a good omen for good writing.

Old-fashioned gatekeepers who check for facts, clarity, restraint, missing attributions and misplaced commas -- gatekeepers formerly known as editors -- are rapidly being put out to pasture unless they can find a way to grow greener grass on the Internet. Not easy, not likely.

Flexible print journalists, however, don't have to become like the displaced monks who filed away their quills and carefully drawn manuscripts when the printing press replaced them. Pew reports that online news hires may have matched the numbers of laid-off newspapermen for the first time since newspapers began an accelerated economic descent into their own recession a decade ago. Not only are more people getting their news on the Web than from newspapers, but for the first time, more money was spent for advertising online than in newspapers.

"In a world where consumers decide what news they want and how they want to get it, the future belongs to those who understand the audience best, and who can leverage that knowledge with advertisers," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew project. "Increasingly that knowledge exists outside of news companies."

Audiences know what they want, and they want it quickly and on the run, like a burger and fries at the drive-thru window. Nearly half of all Americans get some form of local news on a mobile device. Although only 7 percent of Americans said they owned a portable tablet in January, that number had doubled in the previous four months, so you can imagine what it will be by the end of the year. Apple's latest iPad 2 sold out on the weekend it was launched. More than a hundred various tablets are either on sale or in development. It took Moses a long time to carve those commandments on tablets on Mount Sinai; it takes only seconds to send news to an electronic tablet.

That's partly bad but not all bad. What we're losing in quality writing -- some of what goes on the Internet is little more than illiterate doggerel -- we may be making up in a better-informed public. Logged-in Internet teenagers are often up to date about what's going on in the world because they read news flashes on their electronic screens. They can't escape what's happening. In that sense, social media widens the audience for what's going on; analysis and comment is only another click away.

James Fallows published "Breaking the News" 15 years ago in which he argued that the focus on scandal and the "game" of politics was driving citizens away from thoughtful consideration of public affairs. But now he's not so sure. He's reevaluating. "With each passing month, people can get more of what they want and less of what someone else thinks they should have," he writes in Atlantic magazine. The variety of news sites actually reaches out to those with a more measured interest in politics, not simply politicos who are addicted to the polarized purveyors of rage. There are more niches to explore.

No matter how we regard this change, what we need to do now is face up to the inevitability of the shift and guard against the downside, the way the new, processed media can limit the ability to think between obsession with quick hits. In the 1976 hit movie "Network," which satirized televised news as a wasteland, a dismissed anchor screams, "TV is not the truth." He tells his audience to get mad, fight back and yell at the dehumanization of the tube: "I'm a human being; my life has value." A lot of people are yelling on the Web.