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The Rise of the Reader

9:20 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Golden Age of Journalism? Your Newspaper, Your Choice
By Tom Engelhardt

A vintage photo of a 'newsie' -- a very small boy selling newspapers from a large sack

Hard times for journalists, but times of plenty for news readers.

It was 1949.  My mother — known in the gossip columns of that era as “New York’s girl caricaturist” — was freelancing theatrical sketches to a number of New York’s newspapers and magazines, including the Brooklyn Eagle.  That paper, then more than a century old, had just a few years of life left in it.  From 1846 to 1848, its editor had been the poet Walt Whitman.  In later years, my mother used to enjoy telling a story about the Eagle editor she dealt with who, on learning that I was being sent to Walt Whitman kindergarten, responded in the classically gruff newspaper manner memorialized in movies like His Girl Friday: “Are they still naming things after that old bastard?”

In my childhood, New York City was, you might say, papered with newspapers.  The Daily News, the Daily Mirror, the Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal… there were perhaps nine or 10 significant ones on newsstands every day and, though that might bring to mind some golden age of journalism, it’s worth remembering that a number of them were already amalgams.  The Journal-American, for instance, had once been the Evening Journal and the American, just as the World-Telegram & Sun had been a threesome, the World, the Evening Telegram, and the Sun.  In my own household, we got the New York Times (disappointingly comic-strip-less), the New York Post (then a liberal, not a right-wing, rag that ran Pogo and Herblock’s political cartoons) and sometimes the Journal-American (Believe It or Not and The Phantom).

Then there were always the magazines: in our house, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Look, the New Yorker — my mother worked for some of them, too — and who knows what else in a roiling mass of print.  It was a paper universe all the way to the horizon, though change and competition were in the air.  After all, the screen (the TV screen, that is) was entering the American home like gangbusters. Mine arrived in 1953 when the Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings, which — something new under the sun — were to be televised live by ABC.

Still, at least in my hometown, it seemed distinctly like a golden age of print news, if not of journalism.  Some might reserve that label for the shake-up, breakdown era of the 1960s, that moment when the New Journalism arose, an alternative press burst onto the scene, and for a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the old journalism put its mind to uncovering massacres, revealing the worst of American war, reporting on Washington-style scandal, and taking down a president.  In the meantime, magazines like Esquire and Harper’s came to specialize in the sort of chip-on-the-shoulder, stylish voicey-ness that would, one day, become the hallmark of the online world and the age of the Internet.  (I still remember the thrill of first reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” on the world of custom cars.  It put the vrrrooom into writing in a dazzling way.)

However, it took the arrival of the twenty-first century to turn the journalistic world of the 1950s upside down and point it toward the trash heap of history.  I’m talking about the years that shrank the screen, and put it first on your desk, then in your hand, next in your pocket, and one day soon on your eyeglasses, made it the way you connected with everyone on Earth and they — whether as friends, enemies, the curious, voyeurs, corporate sellers and buyers, or the NSA — with you.  Only then did it became apparent that, throughout the print era, all those years of paper running off presses and newsboys and newsstands, from Walt Whitman to Woodward and Bernstein, the newspaper had been misnamed.

Journalism’s amour propre had overridden a clear-eyed assessment of what exactly the paper really was.  Only then would it be fully apparent that it always should have been called the “adpaper.”  When the corporation and the “Mad Men” who worked for it spied the Internet and saw how conveniently it gathered audiences and what you could learn about their lives, preferences, and most intimate buying habits, the ways you could slice and dice demographics and sidle up to potential customers just behind the ever-present screen, the ad began to flee print for the online world.  It was then, of course, that papers (as well as magazines) — left with overworked, ever-smaller staffs, evaporating funding, and the ad-less news — began to shudder, shrink, and in some cases collapse (as they might not have done if the news had been what fled).

New York still has four dailies (Murdoch’s Post, the Daily News, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal).  However, in recent years, many two-paper towns like Denver and Seattle morphed into far shakier one-paper towns as papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer passed out of existence (or into only digital existence).  Meanwhile, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press went over to a three-day-a-week home delivery print edition, and the Times Picayune of New Orleans went down to a three-day-a-week schedule (before returning as a four-day Picayune and a three-day-a-week tabloid in 2013).  The Christian Science Monitor stopped publishing a weekday paper altogether.  And so it went.  In those years, newspaper advertising took a terrible hit, circulation declined, sometimes precipitously, and bankruptcies were the order of the day.

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Tom Engelhardt, The OED of the National Security State

7:06 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Dictionary

A Devil’s Dictionary for the Surveillance State?

In the months after September 11, 2001, it was regularly said that “everything” had changed.  It’s a claim long forgotten, buried in everyday American life.  Still, if you think about it, in the decade-plus that followed — the years of the PATRIOT Act, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites,” robot assassination campaigns, extraordinary renditions, the Abu Ghraib photos, the Global War on Terror, and the first cyberwar in history — much did change in ways that should still stun us.  Perhaps nothing changed more than the American national security state, which, spurred on by 9/11 and the open congressional purse strings that followed, grew in ways that would have been alien even at the height of the Cold War, when there was another giant, nuclear-armed imperial power on planet Earth.

Unfortunately, the language we use to describe the world of the national security state is still largely stuck in the pre-9/11 era.  No wonder, for example, it’s hard to begin to grasp the staggering size and changing nature of the world of secret surveillance that Edward Snowden’s recent revelations have allowed us a peek at.  If there are no words available to capture the world that is watching us, all of us, we’ve got a problem.

In ancient China, when a new dynasty came to power, it would perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names.”  The idea was that the previous dynasty had, in part, fallen because a gap, a chasm, an abyss, had opened between reality and the names available to describe it.  Consider this dispatch, then, a first attempt to “rectify” American names in the era of the ascendant national — morphing into global — security state.

Creating a new dictionary of terms is, of course, an awesome undertaking.  From the moment work began, it famously took 71 years for the full 10-volume Oxford English Dictionary to first appear!  So we at TomDispatch expect to be at work on our new project for years to come.  Here, however, is an initial glimpse at a modest selection of our newly rectified definitions.

The Dictionary of the Global War on You
(Preliminary version, July 2, 2013)

Secret: Anything of yours the government takes possession of and classifies.

Classification: The process of declaring just about any document produced by any branch of the U.S. government — 92 million of them in 2011 — unfit for unclassified eyes.  (This term may, in the near future, be retired once no documents produced within, or captured by, the government and its intelligence agencies can be seen or read by anyone not given special clearance.)

Surveillance: Here’s looking at you, kid.

Whistleblower: A homegrown terrorist.

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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Todd Gitlin: The Tinsel Age of Journalism

6:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A man reads the newspaper

A look at the future of print media journalism.

After all these decades, here’s the strange thing: what I remember are his hands, not his face.  But perhaps that’s fitting for a writer.  His name was Robert Shaplen and he was a correspondent for the New Yorker.  My parents knew him and, as a boy, I idolized him.  From World War II on, he covered Asia.  He seemed to me the most adventurous man on the planet.  With him in mind, I was sure that there could be nothing better or more romantic than being a “foreign correspondent.”  (That, of course, was before I grew up and discovered that I didn’t even like to travel.)  It was a dream that stuck with me for years, along with the dream of the newspaper itself, and the habit learned in boyhood — now disappearing from much of our world — of reading the paper daily (sports section first, then front to back).

Even now, it’s an addiction I can’t shake.  When it comes to the print paper, however, I’m increasingly part of a lonely crowd.  I first realized the change was coming in the early 2000s.  Back then, I used to parachute into the Berkeley journalism school every spring to be an editor to a crew of future reporters.  Every morning, you could get free copies of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and a couple of other papers.  As a lifelong news junkie, it seemed like heaven to me.  But to my surprise, my students often didn’t take the papers at all, free or not.  One day, one of them explained that by the time she hit school, she had already checked out the New York Times and the LA Times online twice (the night before and that morning).  The actual paper was already older than Methuselah in her eyes.

Today, Todd Gitlin, who wrote a classic account of how the news (mis)reported the New Left and antiwar movements of the 1960s (The Whole World Is Watching) and how TV worked back in the 1980s (Inside Prime Time), offers a reminder that my journalistic dreams were just that.  The news, with the usual notable exceptions, was generally a tawdry affair in the service of power.  Still, can there be any question that, as the newspaper fades, we’re entering a new age of conglomerated mainstream chaos?  You only needed to check out the “coverage” of the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath — which you would have had to be blind, deaf, and dumb to miss — to know that.  What possible dreams (other than coverage nightmares) could emerge from that?

If we got what must have been the largest, most militarized manhunt in our history for two young men briefly on the run in one city, I suspect we also got the largest, most intensive, least impressive media coverage for a single event of (probably) little long-term import.  It was the sort of thing that gives the word “overkill” a bad name.  (Have we learned nothing from the over-the-top reaction to the 9/11 attacks?)  The case itself may fade, but the example of shutting down a city and flooding it with thousands of heavily up-armored police and SWAT teams won’t, nor will the flooding of it with just about every media resource that exists on the planet. There’s been nothing like it for blotting out the rest of the world (not in my memory anyway) since the O. J. Simpson car chase of 1994 — and that only lasted hours.

Where’s the romance of journalism now?  Not, certainly, in watching days of those talking heads pontificating, of terror “experts” offering their remarkably pointless expertise while next to nothing was known about the suspected bombers, of listening to an endless stream of non-news or swiftly reported errors and idiocies, or of watching vast crowds of reporters cordoned off from the hope of being close to any possible story, ducking and talking breathlessly about nothing whatsoever.

Of course, since O.J., there have been memorable moments in the development of the single 24/7 media spectacle, starting with the first Gulf War in 1990, that initial TV total war with logos, high-tech graphics, nose-cone snuff films, theme music, and retired American generals (“consultants”) mimicking sports announcers analyzing the campaign that units they might once have commanded were involved in.  During the recent manhunt, however, just about every major cable channel was on it, and the networks soon followed so that for days all of TV seemed to be nothing but a vast media gaggle in the streets of Boston.  The news itself was a bizarre potage of rumor, unnamed sources with misinformation, quarter-truths, half-truths, outright inaccuracies, and god knows what else. In an age of news staff cutbacks and dropping revenue, it’s so much cheaper, of course, to focus all your media energies on one single place and any unfolding event that will glue eyeballs. It was certainly a bizarre spectacle that still needs its chronicler.

In the meantime, Gitlin, whose latest book is Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, offers a little survey of American print journalism on the way down, without a hint of romance in sight. Tom

Is the Press Too Big to Fail?
It’s Dumb Journalism, Stupid
By Todd Gitlin

Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it on paper.  There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish.  The second paper in town has shut down.  Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week.  Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south.  Subscriptions are dwindling.  Online versions don’t bring in much ad revenue.  Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to fail?  Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?

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Lewis Lapham: Machine-Made News

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Kindle Reader, after Renoir by Mike Licht

A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century. I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day. Still, back then, for my novel’s characters — mostly authors and book editors like me — I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.” It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”– for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it — still in prototype form — it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object… a flickering jewel of light and color.” And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.” A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much. The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing. It was evident even then that the coming machines of our electronic lives, no matter the tasks they might be dedicated to, including reading The Book, would have little choice but to “generalize’ into all-purpose entities. The urge for email, a video camera, ads, apps, you name it, has indeed proved overwhelming.

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