August 25th, 1999
Over the last several years, everybody has been decrying the tabloidization of the mainstream press. But I will not join the chorus of Cassandras shouting their warnings about journalism's loss of credibility. Feggedaboddit! Journalistic credibility has about as much chance of staging a comeback as John-John does of showing up at the Millennium Rave in Tonga. There have been other periods throughout American history when the tabloid sensibility has dominated the media. The Hearsts built their publishing empire around it. Eventually, the staid gray voice of presumed objectivity returned. But now the situation has changed. I won't bore you with a string of cliches about the Internet's democratization of media and the cognitive chaos that ensues. I've already done that for a decade. Suffice it to repeat the famous quote from journalist A.J. Liebling -- "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" -- and point out that it now applies to anyone with Net access. Of course, the definable, containable world in which the day's events could be told without ambiguity and could even be punctuated by Walter Cronkite's famous statement of finality, "And that's the way it is," was always illusory anyway. Now, the whole notion of a shared social reality is decaying at a fever pitch. People raised on the Web will no more believe that the truth radiates from the pages of The New York Times than from the latest Eminem CD. This time there's no going back. Don't worry. Look at it this way: Matt Drudge -- who trusts his instincts and shoots from the hip -- seems to get the story right about 75 percent of the time. That's got to be at least twice as good as the Beltway press corps, which routinely accepts and disseminates "information" from the Clinton Administration and the Pentagon without investigation. Mainline pundits see most Net information sources as the lunatic fringe, a realm of capricious amusement from which people will surely turn away -- back toward the "established professionals" -- when they want validated news. They've got it ass-backwards. People increasingly turn to their favorite alternative sources, even for serious news and analysis. And they look at the daily paper for its entertainment value. It's my hope that we are fast approaching that bright day when the last journalists who claim a strangle hold on objective truth are rediscovered as an obscure weirdo subculture. Until that day, may the best tabloid version of reality reign supreme.