The web's yellow DNA

Posted: Jun 23, 2006 12:01 AM
We’re in the middle of another of the perennial tempests over the promise or the peril of the Internet. I’ve always been skeptical of some of the more utopian claims of Internet boosters and the dystopian fears of its critics.

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.

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, 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.