Monday, July 17, 2006

Mass and niche culture

Great post by Jim Henley at Unqualified Offerings about the well-deserved death of "mass culture," which was inspired by this article by Marc Gunther. I have a few thoughts on the article as well, some of them inspired by Henley.

First, as commented on by Henley, it's worth noting that Gunther, in his lamentation of the decline of mass culture, seems oblivious (or indifferent) to the existence of people who never fit into that mass culture, the people it excluded. Most of my youthful experiences with "mass culture" consisted of being ridiculed and isolated for being outside of it, and I know I'm not alone. For someone who differs too much from the norm, the mass culture brings not unity and a sense of togetherness, but rather greater isolation and alienation. The spread of niche culture has done a great deal to alleviate this, and Gunther ignores this fact.

The other thing worth commenting on is Gunther's mourning of the decline of the mass media. To quote from his article:

I think the explosion of choice has left us poorer in at least two arenas. The first is journalism. (Yes, as a Fortune writer, I've got a stake in the health of the mainstream media, which bloggers call the MSM.) The network evening newscasts, big-city newspapers and the national news magazines once had the money, access, skills, commitment and power to deliver lots of original reporting and put important issues on the national agenda. Today, they are all diminished.

However much he may dress this up in public interest terms, this boils down to Marc Gunther bemoaning the fact that people like Marc Gunther aren't as powerful and important as they used to be, and that he and his fellows can no longer dominate public debate, and use that power to push their opinions on the public. (Which he euphemistically calls "put[ing] important issues on the national agenda.") I don't share some people's loathing of the diabolical "MSM" (mostly because I work for said MSM), but I still think it's a very good thing that our sources of information have been expanded beyond the Marc Gunther's of the world. I suspect he'd be thrilled if everyone got all their news from him and his corporate liberal fellows, but I can't say I would be. This leads up to another quote from the article, in which Gunther says:

The second arena where we are worse off is politics. This is related to journalism, as the moderate and responsible (okay, bland) voices of the MSM get drowned out by partisan, opinionated cableheads and bloggers.

Here we have a supposed dichotomy between the moderate, objective mass media and ideological, biased bloggers. The problem is that this presumes that the mainstream media is not biased towards a particular viewpoint, which is nonsense. Virtually every TV news report on social problems I have ever witnessed has an undercurrent of, "Clearly the state must do something." Any government propaganda or piece of junk science that can be spun to encourage greater statism is given center stage, and given the most alarmist spin possible. (Case in point, the way the mainstream media portrayed the recent Surgeon general's report on second-hand smoke. Demonstration of a slight health risk was spun as proof that the direst claims of the nanny statists were all true.)

Whether the media is biased to the left is a matter I won't touch, but it is certainly biased towards big government. Now, Gunther is probably not deliberately trying to deceive, here; he may be genuinely oblivious to the fact this does not constitute objective, unbiased news. This is one of the annoying things about many advocates of increased statism, especially liberals and "vital center" types; they consider their worldview so self-evident that they don't recognize that their ideology is, in fact, an ideology. If you've spent all your time soaking in a uniform "mass culture," I guess that's not surprising.
I realize this post may seem unduly harsh to some. Frankly, after hearing complaints like Gunther's over and over for so many years now, my tolerance for this sort of thing has worn thin.

If you just can't get enough about this subject, or you just want to hear about it from a better writer, Radley Balko has more.

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