Thomas Frank settles into “The Easy Chair” at Harper’s magazine for the first time (since Lewis Lpaham’s departure) in its December issue—published at the end of the month and not yet online—with a shot at the decline of for-profit journalism and those who claim new technologies and the Web more than make up for that.
Frank, who gave up his Wall Street Journal column when he took the Harper’s slot, portrays a “frantic race to the bottom,” citing a recent Columbia Journalism Review cover featuring a giant hamster’s wheel.
After noting that, yes, bloggers have broken many important stories, Frank advises, “What you find as you explore the tweets and blog posts of the media industry’s leaders is that the failure of newspapers has brought with it a cognitive failure as well, in which a handful of superstitions have come to obscure what is actually happening in the world. So powerful is our desire to believe in the benevolent divinity of technology that it cancels out our caution, forces us to dismiss doubt as so much simple-minded Luddism. We have trouble grasping that the Internet might not bring only good; that an unparalleled toll for enlightenment and research and transparency might also bring unprecedented down-dumbing; that something that empowers the individual might also wreck the structures that have protected the individual for decades.”
Frank also bemoans “focus group” journalism and the rise of “content mills” such as Demand Media: “Let the hamsters compete to make the wheel spin, cranking out their $15 stories and tweeting little tweets while the Republic goes to hell.” He tweaks Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen for allegedly being conciliatory toward the content mills.
He declares that this “might be the worst time ever to attend journalism school” and compares one of them to a “hamster–training facility.” He bemoans the “gadget-love” and “techno-optimism” of one leading educator.
“Years from now,” he predicts, “only a handful of professional newsgathering organizations may remain, but you can rest assured that the leaders of the nation’s J-schools will still be talking about the need to ‘listen to the audience,’ trilling wondrously that we must ‘embrace change,’ and writing ecstatic little odes to ‘entrepreneurship.’”
Greg Mitchell, former editor of Editor & Publsiher, has written ten books, and there’s a new edition of his award-winning "The Campaign of the Century" on the birth of media politics.