Old news and the new civil war

Bill Moyers

March 24, 1992|By Bill Moyers

WHERE IS America's mind today? It's in the organs, for one thing. Remember that country song that goes "No one knows what goes on behind closed doors." Now we do.

Americans can turn on a series called "Real Sex" and watch a home striptease class; its premiere was HBO's highest-rated documentary for the year. Or they can flip to NBC News and get "I Witness Video." There they can see a policeman's murder recorded in his cruiser's camcorder, watch it replayed and relived in interviews, complete with ominous music. Or they can see the video of a pregnant woman plunging from a blazing building's window, can see it several times, at least once in slow motion.

Yeats was right: "We had fed the heart on fantasies, the heart's grown brutal from the fare." I wonder if "Real Sex" and "I Witness Video" take us deeper into reality or insanity. How does a reporter tell the difference anymore in a world where Oliver Stone can be praised for his "journalistic instincts" when he has Lyndon Johnson tell a cabal of generals and admirals, "Get me elected and I'll get you your war."

Rolling Stone dubs all this the New News. Straight news -- the Old News by Rolling Stone's definition -- is "pooped, confused and broke." In its place, a new culture of information is evolving -- "a heady concoction, part Hollywood film and TV, part pop music and pop art, mixed with popular culture and celebrity magazines, tabloid telecasts, cable and home video."

Increasingly, says the magazine, the New News is seizing the function of mainstream journalism, sparking conversation and setting the country's social and political agenda.

So it is that we learn first from Bruce Springsteen that jobs aren't coming back. So it is that inner-city parents who don't subscribe to daily newspapers are taking their children to see "Juice" to educate them about the consequences of street violence; that young people think Bart Simpson's analysis of America more trenchant than that of many newspaper columnists; that we learn just how violent, brutal and desperate society is, not from the establishment press but from Spike Lee, Public Enemy, the Geto Boys and Guns 'n' Roses. Now even MTV is doing original reporting on this year's political campaign. We are having to absorb, and come to grips with, the news wherever and however we find it.

Once, newspapers drew people to the public square. They provided a culture of community conversation by activating inquiry on serious public issues. When the press abandons that function, it no longer stimulates what John Dewey termed "the vital habits" of democracy -- "the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued."

But I also know that what Dean Joan Konner said recently at the Columbia School of Journalism is true: "There is a civil war in our society today, a conflict between two American cultures, each holding very different values. The adversaries are private profits versus public responsibility; personal ambition versus the community good; quantitative measures versus qualitative concerns."

And I sense we're approaching Gettysburg, the moment of truth, the decisive ground for this cultural war -- for newspaper publishers especially. Americans say they no longer trust journalists to tell them the truth about their world. Young people have difficulty finding anything of relevance to their lives in the daily newspaper.

Non-tabloid newspapers are viewed as increasingly elitist, self-important and corrupt on the one hand; on the other, they are increasingly lumped with the tabloids as readers perceive the increasing desperation with which papers are now trying to reach "down market" in order to replace the young readers who are not replacing their elders.

Meanwhile, a study by the Kettering Foundation confirms that our political institutions are fast losing their legitimacy, that increasing numbers of Americans believe they are being dislodged from their rightful place in democracy by politicians, powerful lobbyists and the media -- three groups they see as an autonomous political class impervious to the long-term interests of the country and manipulating the democratic discourse so that people are treated only as consumers to be entertained rather than citizens to be engaged.

That our political system is failing to solve the bedrock problems we face is beyond dispute. One reason is that our public discourse has become the verbal equivalent of mud wrestling.

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