Too Many Choices Spoil the Pop Culture?

Radley Balko links to, and rightly lampoons, this silly article by Fortune writer Marc Gunther. Gunther claims that we have too many choices now, with 300 TV channels focused on particular niches. It's reduced the power of the 3 networks to present the news to a bulk of the population, it's reduced the commonality of our shared experiences (since we no longer all watch the same thing, we don't talk about it around the water cooler), and it's "fragmented" our society. Is he joking? One would hope so. Are we really supposed to lament the fact that we can now buy and watch what we actually want rather than what is foisted upon us by the three networks? It's hard to know which is weaker, his grasp of reality or his analysis of it.

The point is, mass culture isn't so mass anymore. Instead, culture is evolving into a "mass of niches." So, at least, says Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, in "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More"...

"We're leaving the watercooler era, when most of us listened, watched and read from the same relatively small pool of mostly hit content," Anderson writes. "And we're entering the microculture era, when we are all into different things."

Oh, what a horrible thing! Consumers actually having choices and being able to consume what they want rather than what is profitable for big corporations to shovel out in huge quantities. Oh, woe is us! Of course, his grasp of the reality of the situation when it comes to entertainment is highly skewed. American Idol has as large an audience as any show in television history. It's so ubiquitous in our culture that I know all there is to know about the contestants on a show that I watched a total of about 15 minutes of the entire season (and only at the very end).

Television continues to create huge stars. If you don't believe me, ask Ray Romano, a fairly amusing stand up comic who is now a mega-gazillionaire. And many of the stars that TV creates these days come from outside of the major networks. Tony Soprano and Stephen Colbert are now major cultural icons that never would have existed on the networks. Nor would Sex and the City, Deadwood, OZ, Six Feet Under, the Daily Show, Emeril Legasse, or the World Poker Tour. Television is still creating stars and cultural icons, but many of those stars would never have gotten a shot from the networks.

But it's when he gets to news reporting that he really goes off the track.

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.

What he calls "putting important issues on the national agenda" is more accurately called setting the national agenda. Do we really want that agenda set exclusively by the huge multinational conglomerates that own the major news media? Is that a healthy thing? I don't think so. And the fact is that the explosion of new media, including bloggers, has helped to change that. Not always for the better, of course, as every phenomenon has both good and bad aspects. But on balance, would you rather have your news delivered solely by General Electric and Time Warner, or would you rather have a diversity of voices to choose from?

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.

Politics in America has become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is the fact that people can now filter the news and opinion they get to avoid exposure to ideas with which they disagree.

Here, I think, he almost has a point. There's no doubt that in the fragmented media searching for a niche, the screamers get more attention than the serious people. But that doesn't mean that the bland major media voices were any better. Their analysis was just as shallow, it was just delivered in a more reasoned tone. Genuinely scholarly and well informed voices will never find anything but a small niche in the media simply because only a small percentage of the population is either interested in, or capable of understanding, serious thinking. But at least those voices have their niches; they were completely absent from the mainstream media previously because they had no mass appeal. And as Balko points out, news reporting that is motivated by advocacy is often better than "objective" news reporting:

More people doing more reporting on more events from more places -- even "biased" reporting -- can only be a good thing. Who says stuffy newsrooms are necessarily the best model for disseminating information?

Here's a quick anecdote to illustrate:

Yesterday, I was talking to two producers from network television about the Cory Maye case. They were floored. They couldn't believe such an injustice could happen, and, what's more, couldn't believe they hadn't already read about it. Why, they asked, hadn't this been covered by the national media?

Good question. It's not as if they haven't had a crack or two at it. The Associated Press wrote the story up the day happened, and again on the day of Maye's conviction. Nobody thought to follow-up. And Prentiss, Mississippi actually made the front page of the New York Times in 2004. Part of that article touched on the Maye case, too. But the reporter who wrote it had come to the story from a decidedly different angle than I had, and I'd argue consequently missed the story because of it. That's because the reporter, Fox Butterfield, found the Maye case while writing a larger story on how the drug trade was ravaging America's rural communities. When that's your angle, it isn't suprising to see how you might fail to look skeptically at a story about a poor black kid on Death Row for shooting a white cop during a drug raid.

I, on the other hand, came to the Maye case from a completely different perspective. I'm far more advocate than journalist. I was researching a paper critical of drug policing. I'm naturally skeptical of the drug war, and of drug policing in general. I'm less likely to take what cops and prosecutors say at face value. From that perspective, the case lept off the page at me, and practically begged me to do a bit more digging.

My point is that there's nothing inherently wrong with coming at the news with a different perspective, or even with an agenda. In many cases, it can help get stories and trends that would otherwise be neglected some needed exposure. Blogs left and right -- and soon, hopefully, the mainstream media -- picked up the Maye case because it's a great story, and it's a horrible injustice. It doesn't -- and shouldn't -- matter that it first took a crazy-ass libertarian to recognize it as such.

The best stuff will float to the top. Right-wing sites and left-wing sites with news and opinion will babble on with stories villifying the usual pariahs, and no one not already converted will much notice or care. But periodically, one of them will break a real story, and it carries across the spectrum.

Confirmation bias and fractionalizing is a legitimate concern. But if you ask me, the alternative -- letting a select group of editors and producers with similar experiences, and who generally think alike choose the news for us -- is markedly worse.

I'll second that motion.

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It doesn't matter anyway--this culture completely went to hell after Howard Johnsons began to offer 28 flavors of ice cream.

The "mass culture" they refer to is a modern phenomenon, if it ever existed. Before TV there was radio, but that, too, is a recent invention in the history of culture. I'm not convinced there was ever a mass culture in the US; talking about "Friends" at the watercooler is hardly an indicator of any deeply meaningful cultural connection. I think most of the complaints are of the sort that people who are comfortable with their current sitution express any time anything changes.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 13 Jul 2006 #permalink

If I were him I wouldn't cite Anderson...or did he totally misunderstand him? Anderson glorifies the "long tail" and the emergence of small niches.

How are you ever going to learn to like (or even learn about) anything new if you only read/watch/listen to/eat/experience what you already know you like/agree with?

Oh, for the days when everyone watched "The Flintstones" as it deftly parodied the real-life experience of the average American family, or tuned in with excitement to "Miss America" to revel in the nw-lost purity of white American womanhood, in bathing suits.
This clown might as well wish for the return of the Asian Exclusion Act, but Bu--sh-- 30% will accept any dreck if it flatters their excuse to give their cynical masters the hope in regaining complete,as opposed to relative, power over us all.

By goddogtired (not verified) on 13 Jul 2006 #permalink

I don't even agree with him that blowhard pundits are associated with the increase of consumer choices. That's a bit of a non sequitur. Rather it seemed to coincide with the popularity of reality television. It's like the country all of the sudden realized that they liked people acting like jerks and embarrassing themselves. Reality television has decreased in popularity, luckily, but blowhard pundits are sticking around. I think people are looking at them more cynically, though. Who is more universally despised in politics than Ann Coulter, or in sports than Stephen A. Smith?

Ah, yes, the MSM's role in setting the national agenda. War? Famine? Corruption? Tyrany? Pshaw, we have pretty white women gone missing to worry about! *cues CNN*

Mark -- I actually remember as a kid reading a short story about life in the city that made just exactly this point. Too many flavors of ice cream symbolized the fragmentation of city life, and this was a Bad Thing. Seriously. Also I think the portions may have been to small for the narrator's taste.

Oh, and I liked this bit from the main post:

Genuinely scholarly and well informed voices will never find anything but a small niche in the media simply because only a small percentage of the population is either interested in, or capable of understanding, serious thinking.

So true. But in America, everyone thinks they already know everything.

(Personally, I'm thrilled that I can buy obscure highbrow stuff online and have it shipped directly to my home. Music by Neko Case or The Fiery Furnaces; books by Gene Wolfe or Marguerite Yourcenar... It would have been hard to find this stuff even a decade ago.)