The church of the curmudgeon

Chris Hedges gives a sermon from his high-church pulpit decrying the devil internet. It’s not worth the effort to fisk but it is notable for bringing together every claptrap curmudgeonly cliche imaginable. As a museum piece, it is notable. But it is also wrong in so may ways. He says:

The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print. All these forces have combined to strangle newspapers.

Oh, ferchrissakes. The decline of newspapers is about the irresponsible management of newspapers that did not take advantage of new opportunities and recognize new realities until it was too damned late. The corporate state he decries is exactly what is now suffering for its sins; see the billions in stock-market value lost. Post-literate? We’re reading more than ever. And I wonder whether rapidly moving images are somehow worse than merely moving images. To hell with talkies.

Sadly, he doesn’t stop:

The Internet will not save newspapers. So far, the really big advertisers have stayed away, either unsure of how to use the Internet or suspicious that it can’t match the viewer attention of older media.

That’s patently untrue and as out-of-date as everything else Hedges says. Big advertisers are all over the internet, but in a post-scarcity economy, they no longer have to pay the monopolistic prices of newspaper companies. You’d think Hedges might celebrate that, except that then he’d have to decide whom he hates more: news companies or the marketing companies that have supported them. Will the internet save newspapers? I don’t care. It’s journalism that matters to me. And the internet is doing wonders for journalism.

We live under the happy illusion that we can transfer news-gathering to the Internet.

Well, he’s right about the happy part. News alerady has come to the internet, where it is faster, more complete, more global, with more voices. Oh, why am I bothering? Oh, just one more:

Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors.

I hope he corrects that gross and false generalization. But I doubt he will. Damned reporters.

  • I’m a bit surprised at Hedges. His piece lost credibility with me when I came to this:

    Newspapers, when well run, are a public trust.

    There is a measure of irreality in nearly every word of that sentence.

  • His bio at the end of the piece outlines exactly why so many bloggers distrust MSM reporters and believe that they harbor rather extreme left-leaning views:

    “Chris Hedges, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” ”

    Oh please. Fascists? War on America?

    The guy is Ann Coulter with a better pedigree.

  • The important question is not whether the internet will save newspapers. It’s whether it will save news and the state of public discourse.

  • Charles


    Was it you who put up the Conan-about-Russert-video? If so, could you lay it up again?

  • From the Wikipedia:

    A death rattle is a gurgling or rattle-like noise produced shortly before or after death by the accumulation of excessive respiratory secretions in the throat.

    Those who are dying may lose their ability to swallow, resulting in such an accumulation. While it is medically established[citation needed] that the death rattle is a strong indication that someone is near death, it can also be produced by other problems that cause interference with the swallowing reflex, for instance, brain injuries.

    It is sometimes misinterpreted as the sound of the person choking to death. In terminal care, drugs such as hyoscine hydrobromide or atropine may be used to reduce secretions and minimise this effect.

    Death rattle may also be used to refer to machines. A machine (usually an engine) with death rattle typically suffers from a spun bearing or other major mechanical failure, causing it to make strange noises.

  • Fascinating rhetoric fail. Hedges is lost in a fog of nostalgia for a past that never actually existed.

    Does he really not understand that nearly every sin he ascribes to the Internet happened first — and arguably found fuller flower — in newspapers?

  • Tom Cunniff,

    That’s a great point. The temporary high minded monopolies the Hedges pines for were built on the wealth created by sensationalism, partisanship and every other sin he points out in the Internet. (Would Pulitzer feel more comfortable today with a bunch of bloggers or a bunch of professional journalists with graduate degrees?)

  • Josh Kirschner

    I can just imagine Hedges living 500 years ago, bemoaning the invention of the printing press?

    “Soon anyone will be able to print a book, even people with partisan views, like Protestants! Donations to the Church, will plummet! The monks and priests who are protecting the public decency will be out of their jobs! The end is near!”

  • “Oh, ferchrissakes.”

    See, I never thought Jeff should, could or would stop writing about the curmudgeonly gesture in commentary on the future of news. But he did. So I find this highly entertaining.

  • OK Jeff:
    Here’s the chapter you need to write, and it’s not about googlewood – it’s about what “news” is (or will become).

    Googlewood may be about making lots of money and bread and circuses, but “news” is about maintaining democratic institutions.

    What Hedges wants to see is “professionals” gathering information and then having it go through some sort of formalized vetting and distribution process. That this was never as impartial or thorough as he thinks, doesn’t change the point about his ideal.

    If many more people can create “news” and if much of it is scurrilous or poorly researched then are we better off?

    How does the filtering take place? Right now there aren’t any dominant figures on the internet, so everyone has a chance of being heard, but what happens in the future when the pipe owners, the search engines and the publishers all start colluding?

    I’ve already complained about the narrowing of the search space as Google has gotten so big, what happens when they start favoring business partners for information and not just ad placement?

    It would be nice if you could find some people to interview who are afraid for the future of “news”, but aren’t tied to traditional outlets.

  • Jay,
    Oh, stop gloating.

  • Andy Freeman

    > what happens when [Google] start favoring business partners for information and not just ad placement?

    How do you know that they don’t already?

    The page rank algorithm starts with site weights that are assigned by humans. That alone allows favoring. The search algorithms have more knobs now. And, there’s always the “hate” filters.

  • He lost me at “rapidly moving images.” As opposed to the slower ones, I suppose. That’s all I have to say about that since I declared a few days ago to no longer fret over curmudgeons.

  • roy belmont


    “Those who rely on the Internet gravitate to sites that reinforce their beliefs. The filtering of information through an ideological lens, which is destroying television journalism, defies the purpose of reporting. Journalism is about transmitting information that doesn’t care what you think.”

    A little harder to fisk that away, I think.
    Esp. given the comments here demonstrate exactly what he’s saying.
    My take is Hedges is lamenting what the non-digital news might have become, not so much what it was as achieved perfection but as potential – in much the same way a lot of us are lamenting the loss of what America might have become, what democracy could have become.

    The Pentagon Papers, (the stolen documents Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the NYTimes that pretty much brought down the Nixon White House) would be:

    A. Harder to break as a story without the centralized power of a corporate newsroom?
    B. Easier to disseminate by publishing it all across the internet?
    C. Easier for the government to intercept and neutralize on the net?

    I’m not so sure the answers to those questions are as obvious as people here think.

  • jmohr

    While the Church of the Curmudgeon appears to be alive and well, so, too, does the Church of the Conspiracy, which bleats about the “temporary high minded monopolies.” The Internet is great for journalism; the past wasn’t nearly as bad as conspiratheists whine.

  • roy belmont

    Journalism as a product, as written accounts and eyewitness testimonies and editorial opinions and photos of current events is gigantically increased on the web. We have access to every major news outlet that’s put itself online.
    In that sense yes the internet is “great for journalism”. It may be the difference between obesity and lean fitness though. Sheer mass isn’t the same as power.
    “News” isn’t about anything, it’s perceptual data. The sense organs of community sending info to the brain.
    One of Hedges’ salient points is the community is atomizing, possibly faster than is healthy.
    Another is the attention span problem. Like with TV, there’s a break in the generational continuum. Kids who grew up with the TV always there don’t know a way of being without it that isn’t reduced, partial, lacking.
    Some of those who did live early childhood without TV in the house will testify to a different not necessarily inferior home life. Until they’re old and gone.
    A most pertinent thing Hedges is on about is the neutrality of reporting, of journalism and journalistic outlets. So what if it was pretty much gone by the time the web began accreting exponentially?
    As an ideal it’s very human-centered, and as a possibility it’s much more realizable with professional journalism.
    Ad-supported partisan sites that hit the majority of their target demographic are comforting and confirming – “information through an ideological lens” – and dropping in once in a while to LGF and The Corner etc, isn’t the same, isn’t as deep an experience, isn’t as healthy for the community, as reading some right-wing columnist’s diatribe on the same editorial page as Mike Royko.

  • Kent Brown


    As someone who worked in the newspaper industry for almost 30 years and who left the industry as a frustrated digital media manager, I appreciate the fight you are waging for the future of newspapers (even though you call it a fight for the future of journalism). If I hear one more person from the industry talk about how new media has not proven itself as a sustainable business model, I think I’m going to puke.

    It is not a matter of proving that new media is a sustainable business model; it is a matter of understanding that more and more readers and advertisers are turning to new media and away from the print product, and it is up to newspapers to figure out how to make new media a sustainable business model. There is no choice here. There is no waiting period.

    I’m not sure, however, that “irresponsible management” is the reason for the decline in newspapers. I think “short-sighted management” is a better description, though I guess you could argue they were irresponsible for being so short-sighted. In my experience, management acted responsibly in realizing it had no idea what the newspaper should do about this new thing called the internet and seeking advice on how to respond to it. Management, unfortunately, listened to the wrong person: the advertising manager.

    Here’s how it would work. I would attend a national workshop and return to my newspaper full of new ideas for us to generate online revenue. I would discuss the workshop and new ideas with the publisher who would then call a management meeting. At the meeting, the advertising manager would smile and shake his head and talk about how much money we would be losing if we shifted our advertisers from the print product to online and how there is no proven business model for online advertising and how we were going to lose a lot of good salespeople because they wouldn’t make much money from online ads, etc.

    The publisher would be faced with choosing between the advertising manager’s argument for the status quo or my argument for rapid change. The publisher always chose the viewpoint of the advertising manager, as he had a proven record of generating substantial revenue for the newspaper for several years while I was the first digital media manager in the newspaper’s history and, thusly, the unproven new kid on the block (albeit one nearly 50 years old and one who had helped to greatly increase our online revenue — no tremendous feat since we were starting at the bottom).

    I understood how the advertising manager felt threatened by many of the ideas I was espousing (self-generated text ads are not going to warm any advertising manager’s heart) and the publisher’s reluctance to piss off his main rainmaker, but I grew frustrated with the publisher’s and the company’s inability to see there really shouldn’t be an argument about this. Readers and advertisers clearly were moving quickly to the internet, so the newspaper had to respond quickly and do a better job of serving those readers and advertisers.

    I’m guessing there are many stories similar to mine throughout the newspaper industry.

    Anyway, sorry for the long post. Keep up the fight. It is well worth it.

  • Finally, the fight between the digital optimists and the digital pessimists is out in the open. The key question raised is really about the news media’s role in promoting democratic conversations (a public discourse) if you like.

    I have some sympathy for Chris’s lament about the corporate state. There’s no doubt that monopolies can exist in cyberspace as they can in fleshlife. We only have to look at the monetization of google and facebook, youtuube etc.

    These things begin, like the internet itself, as expressions of an oppositional culture (I’m not talking far left here, just mild anti-establishmentarianism). You only have to go back to Douglas Rushkoff to see how this sentiment is an expression of the very founding ideals of cyberculture in the 1990s.

    These are the roots of digital optimism: the view that the digital revolution is going to ultimately solve the world’s problems, remove the monopoly over information once enjoyed by the newspaper barons and lead to a democratic, digital global village.

    I’m afraid I’m not so certain. The digital optimists are right, “up to a point”, just like Lord Copper in Waugh’s Scoop. But, in case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you of Rupert Murdoch’s infamous 2005 speech about the interwebs. He signalled very clearly then that the intention of News International was to suck the juice out of as many online eyeballs as possible.

    Murdoch’s approach would not just be a sideline to his main game in newspapers and TV, it has become a deliberate strategy of vertical and horizontal integration.

    The digital pessimists are actually more cautious. We don’t leap for joy at every new gadget and cool app that comes along. We don’t believe that the iPhone is a “must have” fashion accessory, or “can’t do without” business tool. It’s just an expensive phone with a few more geegaws bolted on.

    The optimists need some realism, the pessimists need better arguments.

    I’m not old enough to be a curmudgeon, I’m still and angry young man. Let’s have more of this robust discussion.


  • “The view that the digital revolution is going to ultimately solve the world’s problems, remove the monopoly over information once enjoyed by the newspaper barons and lead to a democratic, digital global village.”

    Who’s view is that? Jeff’s? Some other poster here? A writer we can look up and read? Someone you can link to?

    Who thinks the world’s problems will be solved by the digital revolution? Has Jeff been nodding his head at them? Was he taken in?

    Or is it one of them deals where I am supposed to find that view so common, so “everywhere” these days that I just give it to you, like a 13 inch putt on the golf course? Jeff is responding to a real life curmudgeonly performance by Mr. Hedges, a view he has linked to. To whom are you responding, Marty?

    • Jay, don’t be so coy. There’s plenty of evidence from well-known and well-liked digital sages. You can’t deny that there’s a well worn track here – citizen journalism (if that’s what it is) will turn the MSM on its head and consign it to the dustbin of history.
      There is a digital optimism at large – Vincent Mosco tackles it in Digital Sublime, John Pavlik promotes it (despite denials of digital determinism). Both you and Jeff are in the same camp really, IMHO.
      Not that I’m having a go at people I respect, I’m just putting an alternative view. A view that I’m happy to defend at length. In fact I’m putting it into a book right now. Should be published within the year.
      News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet.
      I’m in New Zealand and I don’t have the resources to match what you and Jeff do in terms of outputs and profile, but next time I’m in NYC, I’d love to have a martini or two.
      I blog my book – 200 words at a time. Drop by.
      PS: sorry it’s taken me so long to respond,

  • Pingback: Marc Cooper » Blog Archive » Attack of the Scribes()

  • My argument with Hedges relates to his naive assertion that these challenges to our society are new and different. He says,

    “… traditions now have to contend with a new, widespread and ideologically driven partisanship that dominates the dissemination of views and information, from Fox News to blogger screeds.”


    “The rise of our corporate state has done the most, however, to decimate traditional news-gathering. Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., General Electric and Viacom control nearly everything we read, watch, hear and ultimately think.”

    When he says these things he ignores twentieth century dead tree newspaper publishing antecedents from Winston Churchill’s British Gazette, a publishing effort designed and implemented to support corporations and break the miners strike and the general strike of 1926, to the amazing foreign policy influence of the Hearst papers. “Traditional news gathering,” reporting and publishing has ever been framed as an idealistic search for truth, when it was often little more than propaganda serving various interests on either the right or the left.

    I think the concentration of ownership issues and “the rise of our corporate state” are matters of concern, but when lumped with Hedges’ weak and idealistic analysis of declining budgets for traditional news gathering, the social structural issues’ importance is masked if not lost.

    Too many people with legitimate concerns about the present and the future frame their discussion with an idealized perspective of past conditions and I think Hedges has fallen into that trap.

    Our digital revolution is a forward looking enterprise, and it will be as uplifting as the ethics and mores of those who participate. Public regulation of concentration of ownership of media is a separate issue, and Hedges has blunted that concern with his awkward article (which does indeed deserve a good fisking).

  • beloml

    1908 version: We live under the happy illusion that we can transfer transportation to the automobile.