The Generation that Wrecked the Media

There's a reason journalism sucks.

When I was in grad school, my favorite social theorist (we had those in grad school, or at least I did) was the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I bring this up not just to flaunt my intellectual pedigree, but also because I think he’s worth talking about at this particular moment in the history of American mass media. Bourdieu’s analytical framework is, in my view, extremely useful for understanding some of the reasons we as a civilization are steadily losing our grip on reality.

Bourdieu’s most significant intellectual contribution, I think it’s fair to say, was to our understanding of how elites construct their perceptions of the world. A lot of sociologists spend their time observing the poor, oppressed and marginalized (Bourdieu would have something to say about why), like anthropologists surveying an interesting and exotic culture on a distant continent. Bourdieu took the same approach, but shifted his gaze back to the intelligentsia itself: specifically to artists and intellectuals (in particular, to academics), and more generally to the larger universe of what we call today “the professional managerial class.”

Like a good sociologist, Bourdieu was primarily interested in power. Nowadays, the concept of “power,” when wielded by academics, gets a bad rap as some kind of postmodernist woo woo, largely due to a misunderstanding of Foucault. But Bourdieu’s conception of power is intuitive enough to be familiar to any MBA student. He regarded power as capital: the resources you amass that enable you to amass yet more resources. In economics, this conception is elementary. Bourdieu’s insight was to perceive the logic of markets and capital at work in all of our social interactions, no matter how non-capitalist.

The more non-capitalist the enterprise, in fact, the more revealing are Bourdieu’s accounts of the market mechanisms at work, because these enterprises tend to be the ones that put a great deal of effort into maintaining the illusion that there are no market forces at work at all. Indeed they depend entirely on that illusion to function.

The most obvious example of this paradox is the art world.

Everyone understands that there is a commercial market in art that conforms to the conventional rules of any other commercial market. Yet still, the monetary value of any particular work of art depends, in part, on its being regarded by its creator, its seller, its buyer, and every other actor in the marketplace as somehow, essentially, non-commercial. Even while participating in the vulgar buying and selling of art, everyone sort of buys into the idea that despite the price tag on it, an artistic work is metaphysically different from any other commodity. It is a unique and transcendental object that is much more than the sum of its crass material parts — that’s what makes it “art,” and that’s what makes it expensive. Its value as a commercial object depends, precariously, upon its existence as an object that stands outside of commerce.

Indispensable as the commercial market may be to the material perpetuation of the artistic profession, the values of that market — the values that are reflected on a painting’s price tag — are the values of a world that is alien to that of art. When defined by its most faithful practitioners, art is about beauty, meaning, and truth. It isn’t merely an instrument for trade or decoration, it is an end in itself. It is ”art for art’s sake.” 

Commerce, on the other hand, is about whatever sells. Its function in the creation of art is merely contingent, a regrettable fact of life. To the extent that commercial values influence art, they are corrupting (Warhol’s subversion of this conceit merely highlighted the central role it played in the ideology of the artist). This is one reason why commercially unsuccessful artists always have the convenient option of regarding their commercially successful rivals with open suspicion, and consoling themselves with the reassurance that their own lack of commercial success is in fact a testament to their artistic integrity.

So within the art world, you have, on the one hand, values that are intrinsic to that world, and on the other, values that wield an influence upon it but that are of a foreign origin — in this case, values from that extraterrestrial planet of money and commerce. And within the artistic professions and the industries that orbit it you have people who are variously aligned with one set of values versus the other. Where a person stands in this continuum depends upon numerous factors, including what their job is (artist, collector, agent), where they are in their career, and what choices they’ve made.

Naturally, trade-offs are involved in these alignments. If you’re an artist and you find yourself largely lining up with the values of commerce (but never too aligned with them, as your buyers need to continue to consider you a Serious Artist to sustain their belief in the monetary value of your work), you may find yourself well-remunerated for it, and you may achieve a certain level of fame. However, in the process you may lose a certain caché, an intangible sense of authenticity that is highly prized within the insular world of art. You can have commercial success, but you cannot at the same time claim to belong to the avant-garde. You can have one, you can have the other, or you can have neither, but you can’t have both. It’s against the rules.

In its broadest strokes, such is the structure, Bourdieu argued, of every field of professional practice, including — and this is where I find him particularly useful for understanding the moment we’re living through — the media.

When I came of age, in the nineties, everyone used to complain about the commercialization of journalism. This was a time when the TV networks still dominated the news business, but were vying for control with the upstart cable news networks. The brutal competition for ad dollars to sell SUVs and Gillette razor blades led to new lows in the desperate search for ratings, from nearly a year of nonstop, wall-to-wall coverage of the OJ Simpson trial to the cringeworthy spectacle of Ron Burgundy lookalikes at oversized desks reporting on cum stains and vaginal penetrations by cigar in the Oval Office.

As in the art world, the complaint was that the kind of tabloid shlock that enticed commercial advertisers was a debasement of the lofty journalistic standards upheld by such historical journalistic luminaries as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite: the values of accuracy, fidelity to fact and freedom from bias — “journalism for journalism’s sake,” if you will. It was the values of the market intruding upon and corrupting the inherent values of journalism.

Today, the advertiser-driven revenue model for media is broken, and you don’t hear that particular complaint so much anymore, except maybe occasionally as an artifactual aspersion born of habit. The media are no longer so beholden to their corporate sponsors, that revenue stream having been swapped, with mixed success, for a subscription-based model. Journalists under the age of 50 no longer pine for a return to the purer values of pre-commercial journalism as embodied by the composed, objective style of Walter Cronkite. On the contrary, the most strident voices are calling for an explicit rejection of those values.

Wesley Lowery, the crusading journalist who began his extremely high-profile career reporting on the riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown, is now at CBS News, the network that was once home to both Murrow and Cronkite. But Lowery specifically rejects the “model of professed objectivity” of those historical giants, in favor of a standard based on what he calls “moral clarity.”

Moral clarity is a slippery concept that Lowery illustrates mainly with anecdotes and hypotheticals, but it seems to amount to bringing a reporter’s or an editor’s personal political worldview into the framing of a story — calling a politician’s words “racist” if the reporter deems them to be so, for example, or not running an op-ed if its publication could have what an editor judges to be negative social consequences.

Like the incessant pressure to produce ratings in order to sell commercials in the 1990s, these new standards that Lowery has proposed are not the native values of journalism; they are foreign imports. They are the values of politics and activism.

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu described the emergence of the bohemian lifestyle in nineteenth century Paris, which was what incubated the “art for art’s sake” values of the art world. In the first half of that century, the French secondary school system had expanded much more rapidly than the French economy had. That left a surplus of young men from the bourgeois classes with secondary school educations, but with a dearth of employment prospects in line with their middle-class aspirations.

French secondary schools had traditionally educated the children of aristocrats, and they still focused primarily on the classical humanities favored by the aristocracy. This fresh batch of downwardly-mobile, would-be elites had thus been trained in arts and letters, and so, lacking the opportunity to enter stable careers in government administration, they entered the literary and artistic professions that were available to them.

They led a precarious existence, renting out squalid garrets and living hand to mouth. But as a cohort, they became a community, and as a community, they created a culture. That culture made a virtue out of the necessity of their immiserated existence, celebrating poverty as the liberating condition for authentic artistic expression. They lived not for money, they convinced themselves, but for art. The artistic act was not just a means to an end of economic prosperity, but was its own life-affirming justification, and they were living that principle without compromise. The Parisian bohemians cultivated the starving artist ethos that’s familiar to us almost two centuries later.

Something similar, I suspect, is happening today, in the United States, in the media industry. For generations, a four-year, liberal arts education has been regarded as the golden ticket to upward mobility for middle class families and working class families aspiring to ascend into the middle class. For most of that time, the promise has more or less been kept, even as, for decades, we have seen gradually diminished returns on increasingly expensive tuitions. Despite those strains, higher education still consistently paid for itself in the form of higher promised incomes for decades to come.

Then, suddenly, in 2008, the floor fell out from under the US economy, dumping the job market into the sewer for the next several years. Cohorts of humanities-trained liberal arts college graduates made the traditional post-college pilgrimages to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, only to be forced to settle for barista jobs and unpaid internships instead of the entry-level career-track jobs they had been led to believe awaited them. The lucky few among them that found gainful employment crowded into the ballooning tech sector, one of the only bright spots on a dismal landscape. And a handful of them entered the suddenly hyper-competitive, though still rapidly sinking, New York media industry.

The media sector having been gutted and degraded for years by the same economic forces that continued to inflate the tech bubble, liberal arts college graduates who, a generation before, would have been corralled into junior copy editing jobs suddenly found themselves qualified for positions as deskilled and casualized staff reporters and columnists, albeit at substantially eroded salaries. This new, premature generation of high-profile media professionals then imprinted upon the industry at large a worldview that had been shaped by the particular experience of their specific cohort — the experience of sudden, unexpectedly downgraded economic aspirations.

As with the Parisian bohemians, the collective experience of economic recession at the very start of the careers of the educated American millennials engendered a generational culture with its own, distinctive value system, one that mythologized their misery. Unlike their nineteenth century counterparts, however, the educational training of this cohort was not imbued with the glorification of classical literature and art; it was steeped in the hyper-political consciousness of the modern American university.

It was with this sensibility that they made a virtue of the necessity of their precarity. Rather than invent an ethos of artistic liberation borne of poverty, as the bohemians had, they imagined their experience of economic alienation and unfulfilled aspiration as one of collective marginalization and oppression, and held up that misfortune as a badge of honor. They saw in their own economic and social dislocation the heroic struggles of oppressed racial minorities, as well those of women, gays, and other groups whose histories of liberation they had been taught about in college. They found dignity and pride in their relative unhappiness, and oppression and injustice in the world that had made them so unhappy.

If the ethos of the Parisian bohemians was the ethos of the artist, the ethos of this American cohort was the ethos of the political activist. Those among them who flocked into mass media jobs, both at legacy institutions like The New York Times and digital upstarts like Gawker, Jezebel and Vox brought with them this set of values, which were just as extrinsic to the native values of journalism as the commercialism of the 1990s was. Later, when The New York Times updated its technology infrastructure to compete with its scrappy digital rivals, it lured in yet more members of this cohort from tech sector jobs. These new hires had even less connection to the traditional values of journalism than those who came into the profession straight out of college — and they pushed the activist ethos at The Times further still. Among the pitchfork-wielding Times employees calling for the head of James Bennett, the opinion editor who had published an infamous piece by Senator Tom Cotton calling for last summer’s riots to be put down with the National Guard, were coder monkeys and user interface designers and app developers who were scandalized by the discovery that some of the older Times journalists saw their jobs as providing the reading public with a diversity of perspectives, rather than advocating on behalf of a particular political ideology.

This is where we are left today. We are left with a media industry increasingly untethered from the values that its most devoted practitioners had once defined for themselves, and that is instead beholden to values borrowed from a different enterprise of human activity altogether, that of political activism. We are left with a media that measures the newsworthiness of an article by its perceived political consequences, that sees it as within its mandate to literally rewrite history and then teach the revised version to school children, that dismisses basic facts as fantasy if they are perceived to be politically useful to malevolent actors, that tells partisan audiences what they want to hear no matter its veracity and just buries its mistakes and its lies when they are proven as such.

It’s a media industry that mistakes its own, parochial view of the world, one shaped by its members’ particular biographical experiences, for a set of universal truths about injustice and oppression, truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Its hallmark is the self-importance and self-certainty of the activist, who comes to the world not with questions, but with answers and an agenda for change. It is self-righteous and incurious, rigid and intolerant, quick to moralize and slow to empathize. It is running on the fumes of the credibility it had amassed in its earlier instantiation, and it is, increasingly, of no use to anyone not already aligned with its agenda and bought into its vision of social transformation. It’s the misdirected outrage of a jilted generation, inflicting its vengeance upon the rest of us.