TCS Daily


Boston Pity Party

By James Pinkerton - July 29, 2004 12:00 AM

BOSTON -- Remember the days when reporters were smug and arrogant and rich? Yup, the good old days. Today, however, the press is suffering from Rodney Dangerfield-ification: we're gettin' no respect. That is, we are plagued by falling ratings and declining circulations, mistrusted by our audiences, squeezed on our expense accounts, and surrounded by bloggers who oftentimes do better work, for free. Oh, for the days of barriers to entry, when the FCC, labor unions, and the need for huge capital outlays blocked competitors from sprouting up. But now those competitors are everywhere, scurrying around, in between our legs, sniffing out action and angles, like little rodents eating dinosaur eggs -- or maybe, it's golden-goose eggs.

The era of Big Government might not be over, but I'm afraid that the era of Big Media is definitely over.

Whereas once the national political conventions -- this is my ninth -- were luxe and plush with free food for anyone with a press credential, now everyone's scrimping. So no Pharaohonic buffets for us; no groaning tables fit for princes and princesses of the Fourth Estate. We're mere plebs now, here amidst the downscaled expectations, not only for true news -- of which there's none, but we can deal with that -- but also for gustatory gusto, of which there's precious little. Believe me, hunger for lunch is a lot worse than hunger for events worth covering.

Here at the Fleet Center, the print media are housed in a huge two-story tent outside the main structure. The tent is an impressive feat of engineering, but the convention's interest in the people inside the tent appears to have ended when the shell and structural skeleton were completed. There are no bathrooms inside; outside are a row of portajohns. You want to find weapons of mass destruction? Go into one of those after 12 hours of steady use.

Did I mention there's not a lot of free food? I remember back in Dallas in '84, when every media work-center offered snacks, even a buffet, and when an open press center refueled hungry scribblers and talkers with cornucopic free food 'n' fixings. Those were the days, my friend: when network news operations featured hour after hour of droning convention coverage, yet enjoyed ratings in the 30s -- they're down into single digits now -- because there was nothing else to watch. That's when newspapers had huge circulations, consisting of real people plunking down real quarters -- none of this hard-to-monetize "eyeballs" and "clicks" metric-ing. That's when closely regulated, heavily subsidized, and happily tariff-protected companies were perfectly happy to share a smidgen of their government-gotten wealth with politicos and journos -- Archer Daniels Midland come back!

To be sure, the crony capitalists and corporate kickbackers are still here, but they don't seem to be sharing their loot with us. At the press-tent, all of us line up patiently for free food from the single company running a hospitality suite: Bell South. Did I say "suite"? Oops, I must have confused 2004 with 1988, when the now-defunct US Savings & Loan League was throwing bashes in genuine suites in New Orleans. You remember the USSL, don't you? Its members squandered a trillion dollars or so in bad loans and phony-baloney boondoggles in the 80s -- it was the least they could do, in return, to stuff the reportorial class with crayfish and pralines. But Bell South's "suite" here in Boston is a small set-off area, featuring hot dogs on paper plates. Of course, the price is right; it's free, if one doesn't mind the time lost, and humiliation suffered, as we all queue up in a long line for a couple bucks' worth of freebies.

Of course, the alternative is even less appetizing: also in the media tent is a single outlet peddling $6 nachos -- they'd be $2 at Taco Bell. And even that price-jack-up stand was running out of food; security is no doubt bollixing up the supply chain. And yet the lines are long there, too, because it's such a trauma to get back into the Fleet Center once one goes out. Which helps explain why the restaurants are mostly empty here; fears of hassle and Osama have driven away the locals and the regular tourists, leaving only delegates and reporters, most of whom feel trapped in Fort Fleet.

So yes, we are all bewildered and betrayed. The plinking noise you hear is the patter of bitter tears, falling like rain. And the simultaneous sear-sound you hear is the futile rustling of empty wallets. What went wrong? Why did the dream die?

Four reasons:

First and most frightfully, changing economics. All that competition from cable, bloggers, and functional illiteracy is finally roosting among us chickens. The scenario we Fourth Estaters face is akin to the dilemma of the porn industry, circa 1980, as depicted in the movie "Boogie Nights." In the 70s, smut-on-screen gained steam; revenues rose, and so, commensurately, did XXX-film budgets and their production values. Smutsters dreamed heroic dreams of porn epics. But then came the VCR; so the pleasuring -- oops, I meant pleasure of viewing -- of porn movies traveled from movie theaters to VCRs. And so the industry shifted from a relatively few high-budget films to an infinity of low-budget videotape jobs. To be sure, the San Fernando Valley has weathered the shift -- it's flourished, in fact -- in terms of aggregate work and profits, but each unit of output costs much less, and is worth much less. And so it is, too, with the non-naked media; there are more of us -- 15,000 here in Boston, they say -- and total revenues maybe even have increased, but less money is spent on each of us. Not many Queen Bees here; we are all drones now, although at least we get to keep our pants on.

Second, the changing media landscape. If competition has taken away the surplus rents of reportorial rentiers, a different kind of competition has taken away the swaggering of the chattering class. Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, Fox News -- the true axis of evil, in the opinion of many journos -- have finally beat The Press. To be sure, a lot more people still consume the mainstream media, but the sort of moral and intellectual monopoly that old-line reporters once enjoyed is gone. Not so long ago, reporters would go to, say, the '92 GOP convention in Houston and declare, simply, "Bush stinks. Vote for Clinton." (OK, they were slightly more polite than that, but that's what they meant, and everyone knew it.) Nowadays, everyone looks at news in a new light: reporters realize that viewers, readers, and clickers have choices, and so most are a lot more careful about overt ideo-gregiousness. Which, of course, takes away a lot of the fun of punditry; most pundits got into the game to help some candidate or cause -- nobody told them that they wouldn't be able to do so for their whole career.

Third, Howard Dean. Remember him? He was the Media Darling earlier this year, on all the covers and all the front pages, and yet he finished third in Iowa. The media, reminded once again of institutional weakness, are now stuck with John Kerry, whom they don't really like. But then again, a random survey of Democratic activists here leaves me wondering: who does like him?

Fourth, Ron Burgundy. You know, the character played by Will Ferrell in the film "Anchorman." After half a century of riding high, reporters are finally being "Ted Baxter-ed," which is to say, everyone's onto us. All our airs, all our pretensions, all our vanities -- bonfired. I'm not a press-basher in the sense that I think reporters are deserving of being scourged, flogged, and drawn-and-quartered -- certainly not drawn-and-quartered -- but it was inevitable that the dialectical wheel would turn; people would come to see that journalists, being the most visible, are also the most risible. To be sure, there's still such a thing as truth, but Jonathan Swift could do a better job of revealing it three centuries ago; all he had was a quill pen. So it doesn't take much to skewer the media, but now the skewerers have some heavy weapons -- cameras of their own. Oh look -- there's Jon Stewart.

So where will it end? I suspect that in the future, the bloggers -- who are to journalism what the VCR was to porn, the harbingers of continuing cost-crash -- will inherit much of Planet Media. That is, a lot of "journalism" will be done by anyone and everyone, reporting on whatever he or she sees while looking out the window. And if the window happens to overlook Iraq, or Laci Peterson, or anything else that could be construed as man-bites-dog, then that'll be the "news" that's available to us on the Internet, the new global common. Moreover, since everyone will be online with a computer, then "blogger" will become an even less exclusive term than it already is; it will be a synonym for "minimally media-savvy observer who can type or stream video." Now that's democratization of the media. And then there'll really be no such thing as a free lunch for reporters.

Embedded self-interest notwithstanding, much about this Blog New World will be really cool. I'm astonished by the seeming infinity of blogs out there -- full of fresh, intelligent, interactive content, provided by thousands of people participating in a worldwide conversation. Maybe the Net will become the neural pathway of our collective consciousness, as William Gibson predicted two decades ago in Neuromancer. It's no longer a downward flow of information; it's a circulatory system -- assuming it's not choked by the Patriot Act, or penis-enlargement pills. But how do you get paid for reportage if you're just another tiny corpuscle?

Moreover, who will get paid for opinions? I'm not the first to say this, but I'll bet pundits will be patronized -- that is, they'll receive stipends and subsidies from patrons, e.g. The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, al-Jazeera, Lyndon LaRouche, the Fortune 500, the Neocon Cabal.

This future -- in which few are paid to report, and not much is worth reporting, at least in politics -- is coming. I saw the writing, not on the wall, but on the Drudge Report: THE BIG YAWN: NETWORKS IN RATINGS FREEFALL AT CONVENTION.

To be sure, one could argue that this ratings swoon is a commentary on Kerry and the Democrats. The media are, after all, still something of a messenger, not the message itself. And so if nobody cares about what's happening here in Boston, it's not entirely our fault. No wonder many reporters secretly hope for a terrorist attack -- at least it would give us something to do. And then, not coincidentally, maybe nobody would question our "emergency" expense reports. But absent such a Big Event, it's likely that the New York City Republican convention will be just as dull.

So while the bubble has burst, the worst might still be ahead, as Big Media shrinks into Barebones Media. And as it leaves us interchangeable and expendable little beans in some downsizing corporate pod, where shareholder value matters more than our ability to order the filet. 

But the politicians and the political class are smarter than we are. Even if nobody's watching, even if nobody cares, these folks still get paid. For more than two centuries, the pols have been rigging up their own system of stipends and subsidies, which delivers for them no matter how boring they might be.

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