“Life after Liquidation of the Fourth Estate”
Lecture to students of communication and international relations at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México
Por: Joseph Duggan
Visiting Mexico these days gives me a feeling of being a time traveler, or one of those characters in science fiction who stumbles into a parallel universe. Let me explain.
Last November I spent a very enjoyable week lecturing at another university in discussion with very bright young students in another part of Mexico – “en la provincia,” as I often hear Mexico City people describe any part of this great nation more than 50 kilometers from your viceregal, heliocentric metropolis. I am not exaggerating. When I talked with some academicians in Mexico City a few days later – none of these from Tec de Monterrey, by the way – I encountered these sorts of remarks:
“Really? You went there? In the provinces? What do they know?”
Well, like Henry Morton Stanley returning from the Congo, I can report to you breathlessly that the younger people in the provinces, availing themselves of the latest global electronic media, know more or less the same as do you young people in the capital, or as young people in countries far away.
But what about the grown-ups?
When I was in the smaller town, I had the honor of meeting the owner of a group of newspapers in that locality. This man was very comfortable, wrapped up in his cloud of prosperity. When I learned what his livelihood entailed I had an urgent impulse to warn him that printed newspapers were doomed as a profitable enterprise. I felt like one of the weather forecasters who tried to sound the alarm for people to get out of New Orleans – whose tourism motto used to be “The City that Care Forgot” -- before Hurricane Katrina hit, but the newspaper owner seemed to regard me as something like one of those long-bearded madmen roaming the streets and shouting that the Apocalypse is at hand.
I could understand why he was not worried.
I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, on banks of the Mississippi River about 900 kilometers upstream from New Orleans. Our civil engineers and politicians have fortified the city with levees and floodwalls. The citizens are assured that they should consider themselves as good as invulnerable because the public works are designed to withstand anything short of what is known as a “500-year flood.”
Well, in today’s media environment, we are awash in a 500-year flood. If you read the novel, The Wild Palms, by William Faulkner, you’ll get some feel for a 500-year flood on the Mississippi.
My sense of being a time traveler that day in the smaller Mexican town was compounded by what was treated as the big news in the local paper. Dominating both the “main” front page and the front of the local section was lavish coverage, in color photography and laudatory prose, of the opening of a grand new Liverpool department store. The Governor of the State cut the ceremonial ribbon. The wives of the wealthy were dressed to the nines.
Have you ever had a very, very bad dream and wanted to scream in your sleep? I had that same urgent sense that something was terribly wrong with this picture. I had an intimation of the Father of Waters about to smash through the levee. Except for the 21st century couture, the Liverpool opening was totally retro -- like a scene from the 1950s. That was when, in the United States, department stores dominated retail shopping, and department stores and daily newspapers were in a symbiosis – each depending on page after page of display advertising the stores paid for and the newspapers printed and delivered.
Big general department stores like Liverpool are a vanishing species in the United States. There are specialized stores instead, and a growing market share for e-commerce. In any case, daily newspapers are not the preferred advertising medium even for the remaining brick-and-mortar stores. Web sites are the way to go.
The last surviving generation of daily newspapers in the United States outlasted the disappearance of retail display advertising by squeezing as much profit as possible out of classified advertising. The model of classified advertising perhaps induced many publishers to deceive themselves into thinking they could profit on the Internet through “micropayments.”
But along came a software engineer in San Francisco named Craig Newmark. In 1993 he began a series of emails to friends and acquaintances to let them share information on things they wanted to buy or sell. He moved his “Craigslist” to the web in 1995. It is something of a cooperative, cost-free to the user. Why pay a newspaper for a classified ad when you can get more effective results for free? Craigslist knocked the last prop out from under the newspaper business.
I tried to warn the provincial newspaper owner that the End is Near, but he contentedly replied that the Internet doesn’t have much penetration in his market, yet.
In December the Chicago Tribune – which in its glory days made governors and presidents tremble and called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper” -- filed for bankruptcy. This week the other Chicago daily, the Sun-Times, filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, they are still publishing, but there is a death watch taking place in the United States, waiting to spot the first major metropolitan area to become bereft of even a single daily newspaper. All of this is happening more by accident than by design. When he ignited the conflagration that is engulfing the Chicago newspapers, Craig Newmark was no more aware of the consequences than Mrs. O’Leary’s cow when she kicked off the Great Chicago Fire of the 19th century.
I went online today and noticed that Craigslist is now operating in Mexico. It is not nearly as robust as it is in the United States – yet -- but there is no reason to believe it will not have the same impact eventually here as it has north of the border.
The implications of the inundation of new media for political communication are huge. Up until recently, one of the doctrines of political communication and indeed most public relations was that “broadcast follows print.”
Ghostwriters and press secretaries like me, working for political leaders or corporate executives, endeavored to get definitive statements of their salient “messages” into the news or opinion columns of leading newspapers – for example, “the newspaper of record,” The New York Times, or the paper for national political junkies, The Washington Post. I spent some of the most profitable years of my career trying to help clients or candidates by developing and executing strategies that were quite linear: First, “message development,” then the “predicate” story or opinion column planted in a leading newspaper. Next, popular resonance of the message through radio and television – optimized by a strenuous effort to maintain “message control.” Finally (usually), victory in our legislative or electoral campaign.
Today even the once invincible Times and Post are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
With the disappearance of printed newspapers and their reporting and editorial functions, broadcasting no longer will be able to follow print. If you follow fortunes of the media business you will know that broadcasting itself is not much healthier than the mortally ill newspaper business. At the end of the 18th century, Edmund Burke, recalling the demise of France’s old regime and its “three estates,” is said to have coined the term “Fourth Estate” for the rising, independent power of the press. Today this Fourth Estate we have known since Burke’s time is being liquidated, not by Jacobins but by geeks.
Not too many years ago when I was a press secretary for a Member of Congress, I helped my boss navigate through the maze of radio and television interviewers who crowded the hall outside the Chamber of the United States Capitol where President Bill Clinton had delivered one of his annual State of the Union addresses. My job was to get my boss interviewed on camera by CBS and NBC and CNN and as many outlets as possible. I had to deal with reporters and producers and technicians who had sophisticated equipment connecting us with their networks, which employed thousands of people and billions of dollars in capital investment. Afterwards we went back to the office and I helped the Congressman make phone calls to print news reporters. For circumstances that I think you can understand, the live, televised nature of this event reversed the usual pattern of “broadcast follows print.”
There was a surreal quality to President Barack Obama’s first speech, just a few weeks ago, before a joint session of the United States Congress. While the President spoke from the podium, a number of Members of Congress employed their handheld devices to send Twitter messages to their constituents or anyone else out there in Tweetville who might have been tuning in. The commentary, whether irreverent or too reverent, was childish, undignified – to an old fuddy-duddy like me, absolutely appalling.
But as Ronald Reagan wrote in 1988 in his profoundly realistic National Security Strategy of the United States, we must “deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.”
The genie is out of the bottle. We have arrived at the moment of realization of the prophetic vision of James Joyce: “Here Comes Everybody.”
Both the late Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric, who has lectured here a number of times at Tec de Monterrey, saw James Joyce’s weird experimental book, Finnegans Wake, as insightful, visionary, and even prophetic. Most critics seem to agree that the book attempts to express the convoluted jumble of fact, feeling and fantasy that takes place at night in a person’s dreams. The McLuhans, plausibly, also see in the book an exposition and projection of how changes in mass media are affecting the relationships in human society. The shadowy protagonist of the book is someone called “H.C.E.” – signifying, among other things, “Here Comes Everybody.”
The world of H.C.E. is comedy and nightmare rolled into one.
The McLuhans say that electronic media dealt a devastating blow to the alphabetic, linear way of thinking and communicating that had dominated Western society since Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and printing became a mass medium. For five centuries, the Gutenberg technology was turbo-charged by Descartes’ extreme rationalist ideology of being and knowing – what the 20th-century philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen, McLuhan’s great friend, called “modern man’s myth of self-identity.”
Today, aural and even tactile ways of perception are regaining dominance, as had been the case before the visual age of print. Radio, as McLuhan said, is a “hot” medium. If you doubt this, consider how during the past two decades talk radio – mostly of the flavor of right-wing populism as distinct from intellectual conservatism -- did its part to turn the calm, linear, rationalist politics of the United States of America envisioned by Jefferson and Madison into something hot and tribal – a cacophony of electronic pow-wows for distinct but allied right-wing tribes.
The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, recently said something not sufficiently flattering about the Princeps and Shaman of Right-Wing Radio, Rush Limbaugh. This was an unequal contest, and the dust-up between Steele and Limbaugh left the Republican Party organization weaker with its basic constituency and carried Limbaugh’s political power to greater heights.
“Conservative,” or as I prefer to call it, right-wing talk radio is so powerful a political force in the United States that some left-wing Democrats in Congress are considering legislation to curb its freedom. They want to revive a former policy that inhibited free speech in broadcasting by requiring the allocation of “equal time” for opposing views. Such policies to inhibit the printed word always have been judged unconstitutional in the United States.
(Let me just note that Steele and Limbaugh both call themselves “conservative” – and so do I. I share positions with both men on many political issues. I am very uncomfortable with the hot, populist style – but for the moment this is a corner of world as it is, not as I would wish it to be. Or to paraphrase Voltaire, I may not like their style but I’ll defend to the death their right to employ it.)
Broadcast radio’s days may be numbered anyway. Now all the hierarchies for the distribution of information are breaking down – including radio and television stations and networks -- bringing to fulfillment James Joyce’s vision.
Clay Shirky, who studied art at Yale and now is a media consultant and professor at New York University, has a new book on this very phenomenon, called – wouldn’t you know -- Here Comes Everybody.
I heartily recommend the writings of the McLuhans and Shirky (and another writer with similar antennae, Nicholas Carr). Much of this work is available online for no cost. I put great stock in what Shirky says because he has predicted the collapse of newspapers and other big media enterprises with great prescience, defying and prevailing against conventional wisdom. Shirky says that all paper-and-ink publishing, as we have known it as a big profitable industry, a mass medium, is doomed. Marshall McLuhan predicted this too, but noted that products of the printing press, like medieval manuscripts, will survive as art forms. In this regard, I might mention that recently the Benedictine monks of St. John’s University of Minnesota commissioned the production of a Bible made all by hand, on vellum and in calligraphy and the gold and powdered lapis and egg tempera of illuminated manuscripts. McLuhan liked to say regarding any technology, “if it works, it’s obsolete.” But the corollary to this, which he also accepted, is that even if something is obsolete, it still can work.
A year ago I attended a program at the National Press Club in Washington, celebrating the centennials of both the Press Club and the world’s first School of Journalism, that of the University of Missouri. One of the morning panel’s speakers was Liss Jeffrey of Toronto, who knew Marshall McLuhan and is a careful student of his work. She gave a good exposition of his work, as I know that your professors here at Tec do as well. The luncheon speaker was a very intelligent and accomplished man. He formerly had been the founding editor of the Wall Street Journal Online. After that, he had been the director of Yahoo! News. Now he was about to launch a new venture.
I anticipated his speech as a kind of revelation of a Holy Grail, tearing away the veil to signify how the online news media were going to operate profitably. I am certain that speaker is a better man than I am, and I mean him no disrespect whatever. But his speech failed to indicate anything – not one single thing -- about a profitable or even coherent future for online news media. I do not mean in any way to belittle or criticize this man but instead to indicate the magnitude of the maelstrom all of us are in.
Just three weeks ago, on March 13, 2009, Clay Shirky posted a piece on his blog, www.shirky.com, called “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” He wrote that in revolutions,
The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.
Shirky also said:
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
As Mexicans who will commemorate next year the centennial of the first gunfire of your Revolution, I am sure you can relate to Shirky’s remark that “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”
On March 12, Eric McLuhan gave a speech at the Campidoglio in Rome at a program sponsored by the Diocese of Rome, whose bishop, you may know, is better known by his global title, Il Papa, The Pope.
Eric McLuhan sent me his text, which I have given to your professors and asked that they circulate to you. His remarks are quite consistent with Shirky’s about our being amid a revolution. But Eric McLuhan adds the hopeful note that this revolution is also a renaissance – the sort of thing that recurs in Western Civilization, like one of those over-the-top Mississippi floods, every four hundred or five hundred years.
Eric McLuhan told his audience, which included the papal Secretary of State, who I hope was listening, this:
Let me suggest that the following six traits characterize renaissances. All can be seen in operation today.
- A renaissance is always invisible to those living through it.
- A renaissance is always a side-effect of something else, some new medium that reshapes perception: in our case, we have the spectrum of electric technologies from the motor to the MP3, from the telegraph to the satellite, the radio to the Internet. The Grand Renaissance married the printing press and the alphabet.
- A renaissance is always accompanied by a revolution in sensibility.
- A renaissance is always announced in and by the arts; artists function as “the antennae of the race.”
- A renaissance always serves as the advance phase of a new mode of culture and society, new-fashioned identities all ’round.
- A renaissance is always accompanied by a major war. In our case, we have had World Wars One and Two and the Cold War (among other wars), and now we are embroiled in the first of the Terrorist Wars. At the speed of light, the front is gone, the battleground is the outward globe, and that (much larger) paysage intérieur.”
We are at one of those crossroads in human civilization where it is scarcely possible to see any road at all. Everyone knows that corporate executives come and go. Those who know anything about Rupert Murdoch should know he did not get where he is by being a pessimist. Murdoch has been a quintessential, entrepreneurial optimist. About a month ago, the second-in-command of Murdoch’s News Corporation announced his voluntary resignation. The world will little note nor long remember who Murdoch’s Second Banana was or what he did, but it should take note of what Murdoch said.
Instead of treating the event as a routine transition, Murdoch spoke in almost apocalyptic terms. He said, “We are in the midst of a phase of history in which nations will be redefined and their futures fundamentally altered. Many people will be under extreme pressure and many companies mortally wounded.”
That sounds a lot more like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn than the Rupert Murdoch we all have known and loved – or, as the case may be, feared.
Thomas Merton was a very good literary critic and poet in the United States in the middle of the 20th century. As a young man for a time he wrote daily book reviews of the highest quality for the New York Times and the now-extinct New York Herald-Tribune. Later he became a Trappist monk and continued writing prolifically after his entry into the silent cloister. Merton composed a prayer that describes the situation of those of us in politics and communication who are aware of our chaotic new environment.
Merton wrote: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
Let me remind you that a renaissance is a rebirth, and that birth always involves bleeding and pain, but afterwards the joy of new life.
The World Wide Web provides the world’s greatest library and the platform for the world’s most complex and far-reaching, yet potentially intimate, communications. These are resources for our renaissance. That is why I join the McLuhans in urging that you – that we – as seekers and learners go back to the classical tradition of understanding as “grammarians.” Sixty-five years ago Marshall McLuhan in his doctoral dissertation on the classical Trivium of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, deplored the Cartesian imbalance of overemphasizing dialectics to the neglect of “grammar.” McLuhan explained, “The grammarian is concerned with connections; the dialectician with divisions.” And he said, “Grammarians distrusted abstraction; dialecticians distrusted concrete modes of language.”
What does this mean in terms of politics and international relations? Of these grammarians and dialecticians, did McLuhan name names? Yes. He said Cicero – a proponent of the natural law -- was perhaps the greatest grammarian. Machiavelli was a “consciously anti-Ciceronian” dialectician. In the intelligence profession, the grammar of the Trivium is known as pattern recognition. The great book by Adda B. Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History, is used extensively by the more intelligent intelligence professionals and other adherents of realism in world politics. The book is a grand quest for understanding; it is the work of an encyclopedic grammarian.
News media enterprises today are subject to market forces and are facing consequences – the destruction of many recently prosperous enterprises and types of enterprises.
The modern nation-states – and the supranational organizations like the United Nations -- are stiflingly bureaucratic. They are less subject to market forces than are businesses, and in reaction to the current economic panic – a crisis of abundance, not of scarcity – the big governmental and intergovernmental bureaucracies are opportunistically seizing more power. The bureaucracies have a shifting parasite-host relationship with the social engineer, the “development professional,” and the other types of soulless technocrat whom the late Samuel Huntington called “Davos Man” and Frederick Wilhelmsen called “the egomaniac, lusting gnostically to dominate all existence.” Just contemplate what has been taking place in Washington the past two months, and at the Group of 20 Summit in London this week, where Chinese totalitarians, Russian authoritarians, cosmopolitan eugenicists, and Western “democratic” socialists are straining to stitch together a Frankenstein monster from the jumble of formaldehyde jars holding the maimed remains of capitalism. In 1945, C.S. Lewis wrote a novel envisioning the death-over-life power of today’s gnostic technocratic bureaucracy; he called it That Hideous Strength. It is the fictional companion to Lewis’s famous treatise, The Abolition of Man.
Marshall McLuhan’s very first published article appeared when he was a 25-year-old graduate student. The article was about a writer whom young McLuhan admired, G.K. Chesterton. The year was 1936, a moment when Big Government statism was in vogue from Washington to Berlin to Rome to London to Moscow. McLuhan praised Chesterton’s “inspiriting opposition to the spread of officialdom and bureaucracy.” He called Chesterton “a revolutionary, not because he finds everything equally detestable, but because he fears lest certain infinitely valuable things, such as the family and personal liberty, should vanish.”
The new media are on a collision course with Big Government. They are not immune from gnosticism, but they are inherently anti-bureaucratic. They will serve us and serve our freedom if we understand them, and if we understand ourselves. We can and should make the new media our instruments, our allies, in recovering and strengthening infinitely valuable things such as the family and personal liberty.
I am sure that Marshall McLuhan, a man of deep faith as well as insight into our human and earthly ecology, would have shared the sentiment of the conclusion of Merton’s prayer:
“I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a former aide to Ambassadors Jeane Kirkpatrick and Edward Rowny. He has a master’s degree in statecraft and world politics from the Institute of World Politics, Washington; and a bachelor of arts degree in classical languages and literature from the University of Dallas.