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Every Man an Anchor on the Goodship Palin

November 24th, 2009 · 14 Comments

Last week over lunch, a friend and I found ourselves musing over how it was that the blogosphere—meant to free us at last from the tyranny of media gatekeepers—so often wind up stampeding after the same trivia as cable networks anchored to a 24-hour news cycle. Look, I’m ODed on the health care debate too, but we really don’t have a better alternative conversation topic than some failed VP candidate’s trashy celebrity memoir? I mean, there’s this crazy secret copyright treaty that’s pretty interesting.  Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve been flailing around trying to get, well, anyone to pay attention to this whole PATRIOT reauthorization thing.  It’s not just Palin, really, it’s the whole freakshow parade of daily banalities. I want to believe the problem is the ol’ legacy media, still acting as lobotomized drum major for this unseemly spectacle, but if anything new media seem to be making it worse.  In a lot of areas, swarm media really has diversified and deepened news consumption, but in politics it seems mostly to have lowered the bar for the minimum speck of chum required to spark a mass feeding-frenzy.  At this rate I feel like 2012 may well be a three-way race between a LOLcat, Balloon Boy, and a hilarious YouTube of a masturbating chimp. What the hell is wrong with us? And why am I hopping on this moronic conga-line with a meta-post about how obnoxious it all is, instead of writing about all the substantive crap I wish someone would write about?

Yes, well. Ahem. A quick theory before I  take my own advice.  On the old media model, you had a whole array of reporters, producers, sources, wonks, academics, and whatnot behind any given news story. And the role of the news anchor, or columnist, was to step in front of the camera and translate all that work going on in the background for a mass audience. Too often, that meant reducing complicated policy questions to the crude universal language of horse-race analysis, but somewhere off-camera there was, at any rate, a real story to screw up in the telling.

We like to say new media is allowing us all to be journalists. But it’s probably more accurate to say it lets us all be anchors. Sure, the Internet also allows people with local knowledge or serious expertise to speak directly and be picked up by a wider audience, but it doesn’t fundamentally do a whole lot to increase the population of those people. But it radically expands the population of potential anchors chasing them—or, increasingly, chasing each other. And we don’t even have the benefit of a script written by someone who at least got briefed by someone who knows something. So while on the one hand there’s a well-recognized trend toward media fragmentation into deep niches, there’s countervailing pressure toward convergence on a handful of big shallow water-cooler stories. Because if you’re one small bite of the reader’s info-tapas diet, Topic A needs to be something they can jump into without three courses of exposition to start with. And if everyone’s going to get to play anchor, then the folks serving it up each need to be able to add their own precious snowflakes of perspective without too much background either. Culture war froth comes to the fore because it’s one thing we all feel competent to talk about.

That makes Palin the perfect post-postmodern politician, in a way: A totally self-contained text, a signifier with no referent. You don’t really need to know anything to love her or to hate her, because she’s not about anything except… Sarah Palin. Obligingly, she places no demands on either her supporters or her detractors, because what they decide to think of her is all they need to know to decide what to think of her. At the center of her media narrative is… the media’s narrative about her, bouncing down an infinite corridor of mirrors. If Jorge Luis Borges had a talk show on a cable channel run by M.C. Escher, it would look like CNN right now. Welcome aboard the Goodship Palin, now sailing from the desert of the real.

OK, that was cathartic. Back to writing about grown-up stuff.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Julian Meta-Sanchez « Stability/Instability Paradox // Nov 24, 2009 at 1:37 am

    […] Published November 24, 2009 Uncategorized Leave a Comment Julian Sanchez has a funny post up about some problems with the discourse fostered by new media.  I came along a little bit after […]

  • 2 Jacob Wintersmith // Nov 24, 2009 at 1:38 am

    Someone needs to figure out how to parcel out the content of standard textbooks in a “tapas format”. There’s so much to learn, and so little to be learnt by watching the news. Even if the 24-hour madness were relaxed to a one-week news cycle, almost everyone would be better off ignoring the news and trying to learn the things that other people figured out a long time ago.

    But that’s probably a pipe dream. Statistics, chemistry, and economic theory are probably just intrinsically a lot less interesting to most people than arguing about Palin in jogging shorts.

    I plan to vote for Balloon Boy, unless Paris Hilton enters the race.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Nov 24, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Actually, I find the Teaching Company does quite nicely. 30-minute lecture bites for your iPod, perfect for the daily commute, and probably a close approximation to a good textbook in many cases.

  • 4 Ben // Nov 24, 2009 at 10:25 am

    There is now “iTunes U” which offers podcasts (for free) of a lot of college lecture courses, from all sorts of universities.

    ‘Batin Chimp ’12!

  • 5 Joe Miller // Nov 24, 2009 at 10:37 am

    This is a great post, Julian. My only quibble: a Jorge Luis Borges talk show on an M.C. Escher-owned cable channel would be way more awesome than CNN.

  • 6 In Which I, In My Own Small-Way, Exasperate the Problem « Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Nov 24, 2009 at 11:02 am

    […] to  Julian’s substantive analyses  of copyright or privacy issues, but a Neil Postman-style screed about news cycles and masturbating chimps and Sarah Palin catches my attention: Culture war froth comes to the fore because it’s one thing we all feel […]

  • 7 Kevin Donovan // Nov 24, 2009 at 11:51 am

    You might be interested in danah boyd’s Web 2.0 Expo talk on the subject: http://bit.ly/6tS09z

  • 8 Dan Summers // Nov 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Fools. I have already festooned my car with “Masturbating Chimp 2012” bumper stickers. We’ll see who’s laughing when I end up with a plum federal appointment.

  • 9 The Rest of the Story § Unqualified Offerings // Nov 25, 2009 at 8:47 am

    […] best example of The Blogosphere doing tangible good in the world, as opposed to winning points in ideological or party-political towel-snapping. Posted by Jim Henley @ 8:39 am, Filed under: Main Comments (0) « « Some Kind of […]

  • 10 Dom // Nov 25, 2009 at 11:52 am

    ” I want to believe the problem is the ol’ legacy media, still acting as lobotomized drum major for this unseemly spectacle, but if anything new media seem to be making it worse”

    The biggest culprit is Andrew Sullivan.

  • 11 Travis // Nov 25, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    “At this rate I feel like 2012 may well be a three-way race between a LOLcat, Balloon Boy, and a hilarious YouTube of a masturbating chimp.”

    I disagree. Its way too early to rule out the turtle who humps shoes.

  • 12 Mel Baker // Nov 27, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    You hit the nail on the head.

    I work as a newswriter in television and radio. We train a lot of interns and the question we all ask them is “what do you want to do?’

    About half say they want to be a news anchor. At that point I say, “oh that’s nice” could you go grab this tape for me? I’m completely uninterested in helping them or giving advice. They want the glamour without becoming reporters who actually learn the story.

    Most anchors in t.v. have been reporters (there are exceptions) the problem with many blogs is that people want the platform without the bother of having to gain a depth of understanding of the issues they are spouting off about, it’s all opinion and white noise.

    Microjournalism by so-called “Citizen Journalists” can be valuable if it utilies the expertise of the person in question, but most of what we have is endless iterations of the same ideas from the most popular blogs and mainstream pundits.

  • 13 Weekend link dump for November 29 – Off the Kuff // Nov 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    […] Welcome aboard the Goodship Palin. […]

  • 14 Daily Feeds « Brave New World // Nov 30, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    […] Every man an anchor on the goodship Palin (Julian Sanchez) […]