Unpopular culture

I’m at a PBS panel at Reuters on news and the tabloid culture. It starts on a snotty note: a commercial for PBS from its head and sniffing about popular culture, which I find rather disingenuous from an institution that has to exploit Yanni to get money. When people look down on popular culture — aka tabloid culture — they are looking down on the public they supposedly want to serve.

Carl Bernstein argues that “journalism is part of popular culture and we cannot get away from that.” He goes on to say that “I don’t believe that the reporting on the war is as bad as some people, particularly people on the left, say. . . . During Watergate, it took a long time for people to believe in our stories.” The country is turning on the war because they do not believe it’s working and he says they come to that belief because journalists have been dogging coverage of the war.” Yet he turns around to argue that we operate with an “idiot culture” that was once a subculture “but now it is more menacing because it is starting to drown out the process by which people previously have been able to absorb serious information.”

Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair says the problem is that what we in media do is boring. “The form has died.” He also says the economic basis of news is falling apart and that one cannot name a news industry and organization that is not in turmoil.

Poor Janice Min, editor of US Weekly, is being held up as the devil: Ms. Tabloid. She, in turn, holds up TV news as the devil. “I would just rather go online and read the news.”

Todd Gitlin blamed everything on the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, until he was cut off.

Brooke Gladstone of On the Media tells a whining Bernstein that the relationship with media is fundamentally changing. “You can’t use media as a conduit anymore… you have to use it as a conversation.”

Wolff says to Bernstein and Gladstone that “this is all about condescension…. people are reading our news and saying it is full of shit.”

Gitlin launches off on a lecture on Watergate. Wolff jokes that we should get off this Watergate thing. Gitlin explodes and tells Wolff he’s rude. “Gitlin part of the fucking problem with media” is shouting, he shouts. Wolff: “Part of the problem is is a lack of a sense of humor.” Gitlin, red-faced, proves the point, accusing Wolff of “a lack of grace.”

Bernstein asks the room who voted for Bush. Not a single person raises a hand. “This tells us something about we who are producing this,” he says.

A student from NYU says that between Frontline and US is Jon Stewart. I wish some journalism students — someone under 50 — were on this panel (and there are plenty here from NYU and CUNY). That’s the perspective we’re not hearing. Indeed, we heard some sniffing about having the follow the demographic advertisers want: namely, young people. After saying, with admiration, that Stewart should be nominated by his school for a “fake Pulitzer,” Gitlin — looking at media the old, mass way — says that Jon Stewart’s number are “very low” and that “he is not the voice of a generation.”

I do my predictable rant arguing that this is about respect for the people and about listening. When we dismiss popular culture we dismiss the population. We do see Fanning of PBS and Gladstone of NPR making good use of new media to present news but I argue that is less than half the battle (and the head of PBS says that PBS — particularly Frontline — is looking to use new media to open up to new talent and new reporting): It’s about listening to the people.