The Theater of the News at 28

The Theater of the News at 28


By Cliff Barney

It was at the very beginning of the Reagan administration that Lewis Lapham analyzed the process by which the nation’s press had become mixed with television, film, and pop culture to comprise “media,” an amorphous social entity that gave a continuous performance of what Lapham called “the theater of the news.” Himself a veteran of years in the editorial trenches at daily newspapers before becoming editor of Harper’s magazine, Lapham knew from his own experience that much of what eventually got into the paper was molded to fit an unspoken but agreed-on story of the day. His shining example was a Washington Post story about an 11-year-old African-American heroin addict, a piece that had the misfortune to win a Pulitzer Prize, leading to the revelation that no such 11-year-old existed. The prize had been given (and the story published), Lapham pointed out, because the story confirmed what the prize committee and the editors believed about African-Americans.

The Theater of the News, to call it by name, with capitals, is not always so lurid as the Post’s tale of race, childhood, and addiction. Lapham cites its persistence in the taking of “Third World” as the name of a real place as well as a convenient symbol, and in network television’s never-ending “troupe of celebrities [news anchors] transported with the ease of a Shakespearean scene change to Dallas, Vietnam, Chicago, Vienna, Washington, and the Afghan frontier. The technical and lighting effects were astonishing, the verisimilitude of the characters so startling as to make them seem almost lifelike.” This was in 1981; today’s digital phantasmagoria and breathless bloggery is even more hyperreal.

Staying with the Program

In effect, Lapham says, the news process has changed from one of saying “Here are the facts; what story do they tell?” to “Here is our story; what facts do we have that tell it?” And so today we are treated to routines showing Joe Biden as a blithering idiot, Sonia Sotomayor as racist/not a racist, depending on your allegiance, single payer health care as “off the table” and so needing no coverage. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show have a great deal of fun ridiculing these stories, but for all that, they continue. The issue is no longer what happened (what used to be called “news”); it is how what happened fits the current narrative.

Even in 1981, Lapham saw that the technological revolution was beginning to fragment the audience: “…instead of bringing people together, the sophistication of the new technologies has forced them farther apart and deprived them of the capacity to speak a common language.” This is a critical point, I think, and it is more so today, when the Internet and the blogosphere have multiplied the number of information sources. The fabled granularity of digital transmission has transformed us each into an audience of one, and I am encouraged to log in to “My Yahoo” or “me.com” or my special version of any act in the continuing news/entertainment vaudeville. This being the case, citizens are given no common vision, however accurate or inaccurate, of their society. Instead, Lapham concludes, we are “forever suspended in the revolving light show of names, issues, events, votes, hearings, treaties, wars, scandals, and final scores.”

Amateur Hour

It is for these reasons, for the fact that, as Lapham elsewhere puts it, that “news has moved out of the newspapers,” that, I think, newspapers are failing – not that they are being marginalized by blogs and free information. It is really absurd, when you think about it, that a major industry could be taken down by a ragtag bunch of amateurs – blogista writers who can barely write, reporters who do not bother reporting, there being no editors to urge them on, and a couple of smart-cookie digerati who saw quickly how they could give away what had previously been charged for. Against them newspapers could have marshaled a trained editorial army of many thousands. Yet, incredibly, these veterans have been fired and bought out, and newspapers have shrunk in every dimension in a relentless campaign to cut costs and maximize profits. With a few gallant exceptions, publishers have abandoned center stage and contented themselves with printing the playbill.

In the face of this near-collapse of a once fairly responsible press, Lapham himself has thrown up his hands and retreated to the bastion of the elite, rather like the nobles who shut themselves up in a castle and told each other stories while the Black Death raged among the population outside. One can hardly blame him, since the very nature of the Theater of the News makes any given publication just another act. Lapham’s castle emits a kind of modern Decameron every ninety days, the lavish Lapham’s Quarterly, in which a hundred sages and screwballs of all eras challenge the blogosphere in a collection of their pithier observations as they bear on contemporary issues, accompanied by illustrations so good that one can’t just glance at them. A noble effort, though clearly caviar to those with a taste for it.

However new forms are required, I think, for the mass of people wistful for a press that more accurately reflects their needs and desires. Newspapers are expanding their online activities, with varying degrees of success. It’s still not clear how reporting and editing staffs will be affected by this transition, or whether an independent press will be able to stand apart in the ongoing Theater of the News. There is a new cast of thousands waiting in the wings – the generation of young journalists with no place to go, who have matured just as their industry has been dying. One can hope at least that we are in for an exciting second act.

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