David Broder and the brave new world

    It was perversely fitting yesterday that I would be reading a provocative think piece about the “new media” when word came that David Broder had died.Broder, the dean of national political writing dead at 81, was definitely “old media” and old school. His career, mostly at The Washington Post, spanned nearly 60 years, from laborious typewriters to the instantaneous Internet, but he was rooted in the best values of an increasingly bygone era.In other words, he exuded civility and professionalism. Instead of shouting opinions on cable shows, he toiled in the vineyards the old-fashioned way, knocking on doors and taking the public’s pulse. Instead of tweeting half-formed thoughts, he took the time to craft. And he was an instinctive centrist – a trait that predictably brought him ridicule from the left and the right during his last years.The values that Broder exemplified are vanishing, and we’re not necessarily better off. As New Republic senior editor Jonathan Cohn pointed out yesterday, “I do worry that what David Broder did was very labor-intensive and requires support, financial and institutional, and I worry about where that’s coming from in the future because of how the media is changing….Blogging is all about volume and speed. (Broder’s way) is just slow. Because you have to interview a lot of people, it takes a few days. To take a few days to write a 700-word column, your average blogger would have written a book.”Which brings me to the think piece I was reading yesterday. In the new issue of The Atlantic magazine, veteran journalist James Fallows ruminates at great length about the incremental demise of the journalistic era in which Broder thrived, “the golden-age decades…when newspapers were fat, national magazines were widely read, and (national) TV news reports were sober and ‘responsible.'”Fallows acknowledges that this era is dead and gone; however, “I no longer think it’s worth arguing whether journalism is getting ‘worse’…I now think it’s worth facing the inevitability of the shift to infotainment, and seeing how we can make the best of it.”Of course, Fallows clearly does think that journalism in the ideologically polarized digital age is getting worse, that it risks becoming a “Babel of ‘truthiness’ in which no trusted arbiter can establish reality or facts,” that people will increasingly “withdraw into their own separate information spheres.” He quotes a digital media expert who says, “We have created a technology that has wonderful potential, but that enormously increases our ability to lie to ourselves and forget it is a lie.”But Fallow’s main concern – rightly so – is that the online thirst for “attracting quick hits” will turn the new media “into a continual-distraction machine for society as a whole.” He worries that the new media’s most popular outlets will increasingly seek the lowest common denominator, giving people only what they already want to see and read, as opposed to exposing people to inconvenient truths and vital information they otherwise might never have known.As the founder of Gawker told Fallows, “Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables. Nor does anyone want to pay (via advertising) to encourage people to eat their vegetables.”David Broder believed in the vegetables – not as an exclusive diet, but from the perspective that readers sometimes benefited from being exposed to stuff they didn’t know, to material that engaged the mind as opposed to the gut. He found things out and wrote them up, without any concern about what the Gawker guy calls “web metrics.”Granted, as Fallows also acknowledges, it doesn’t pay to mourn what is inexorably gone. In Brooklyn, men of a certain age are still lamenting the demise of Ebbetts Field, and that’s getting a little old. Better that we look with optimism to the future, and foresee a brave new world in which the new media will deliver quality, especially in a crisis. Fallows offers this very recent example:”A major event in world history was covered more quickly, with more nuance, involving a greater range of voices and critical perspectives, than would have been conceivable even a few years ago. Within hours of the first protests in Egypt, American and world audiences read dispatches from professional correspondents – on Web sites, rather than waiting until the next day, as they had to during the fall of the Berlin Wall. They saw TV news footage—including Al Jazeera’s, which was carried by few U.S. broadcasters but was available on computers or mobile apps. Then the Twitter feeds from and about Egypt, the amateur YouTube videos from the streets, the commentary of contending analysts—all of it available as the story took place. We take this for granted, yet there has been nothing like it before. Even a year ago it would have been hard to imagine how thoroughly, and with what combination of media, voices, and judgments, an event in an Arab capital could have been witnessed around the world.” So, yes, there’s an upside to the new media paradigm. And perhaps Fallows is right to be to optimistic about our ability “to investigate, weigh, and interpret the ever richer supply of information available to us,” without dumbing ourselves down to the lowest denominator. Nevertheless, he smartly argues that our civic life will be greatly enhanced if only we can transplant the old media’s best “values and standards” into our brave new world. That alone would be a fitting memorial to David Broder.

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