Go ahead, talk

media wizards love company

September 18, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

I HAVE A QUESTION. Who or what is "The Media?"

I know it's powerful. And it seems to have mostly mischief on its collective mind. It's apparently the cause of everything from pestilence and flood to religious intolerance and blue states.

I'm just wondering: If we could rein in "The Media," would our problems go away? Would Katrina's waters recede? I've done some investigating and here's what I've learned. "The Media" has a history. For generations, there was just "The Medium": newspapers.

Newspapers ran the world. They stood in for people who were too busy feeding their families to sit through hours of public testimony on water and sewer projects. People were grateful. They sat in their Strataloungers and read about the water and sewer pipes. They marveled that the newspaper had an opinion about these pipes - and that public officials seemed anxious to know what that opinion was.

What a shock it would have been for many of those who feared "The Medium's" power to see how it operated and just who the operator was.

Mighty newspapers have been run often by brilliant and autocratic men. But just as often (in my experience) they were shy men. They were not great conversationalists. An odd failing, you might think, for people in the news business. But trust me. If they spoke to their employees, they spoke in rough commands, or they rummaged through mental tape libraries looking for a conversational sound bite.

They dealt with readers in much the same way. They were like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a scrim of power. They weren't biased at all - unless, as those of the left and right sometimes do, you think objectivity is a form of bias. They just liked to make decisions no one dared question.

There was logic to what they did, a healthy objective they often met. Their decisions were based on their experience, on the reports of their correspondents and on the practiced views of their editor helpers - oh, and their wives who weren't having any of that wizard stuff.

But, foibles aside, they were professionals digesting and regurgitating the world on a daily basis. Someone had to do it.

So, they handed down their judgments, wise or tedious, as if they were the final arbiters of what people needed to know.

People had questions, of course. Most could be dismissed. But some figured out how to get the wizard on the telephone. If they owned a bank or a paper mill or a railroad - or if they held some public office - the wizard might take their call. He would pretend, at least, to listen. Everybody, he might say to himself, wants to edit the newspaper.

Heads of banks see themselves as editors. So do the managers of charitable foundations, police commissioners and gas company presidents.

Governors, it turns out, edit, too. When they're not playing golf, they have time to edit. The current governor of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., accused The Sun once of publishing "wholly invented stories." Asked to provide a list of these, the governor demurred. Later, it became clear that a "wholly invented story" was a story the governor didn't think belonged in the newspaper.

That would be par for the course. Various indiscretions, poorly managed natural disasters and deep gulps at the public trough would not be stories.

All of the second-guessing was fine. The Wizard could handle it. He just went into his office, unwrapped the cheese sandwich he'd brought from home and asked his secretary if she would get him a diet Coke (and did she have any change for the machine).

But then something happened. People who would otherwise waste their lives ranting across a breakfast table about the Wizard's story selection could now call a talk show guy who would let them vent at length. Venting became a marketable commodity. There are now vast venting empires.

Callers, talk jocks, bloggers and all the rest have been transformed. When we are all so engaged, we will have an electronic version of that Biblical tower. We will hope eventually for that single mediating voice.

Meanwhile, talk-show callers report a rush of empowerment and a craving for cheese sandwiches.

Not to worry. Wizards love company.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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