Monday, July 10, 2017

Opening an Old Wound

Over the last few weeks I have been working my way incrementally through Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, having saved it on my xfinity box after recording it from a Starz channel. The film was released for public distribution in 2011, and I suppose I was drawn to viewing it after having derived so much pleasure from observing the work practices in the film Obit. Life on Deadline, which was also set at the Times. Nevertheless, the films could not have been more different. While Obit. follows the ups and downs of a small team of writers, who come across as being very good at their jobs because they work very hard at it, Page One is an uncompromising examination of a business (not just a single newspaper) on life support. Towards the end we see David Carr addressing a conference of journalists, telling them that the fact that they are still around is an achievement unto itself.

I was writing about journalism and the changes in its work practices long before The Rehearsal Studio was launched. One of the tags I had created for my old Yahoo! blog, Reflections Beyond Technology, was “news;” and I was already worrying about the extent to which the Internet had become a platform for “fake news” as early as 2006. This was a time when I was reading Truthdig regularly, and it provided me with a quote from Joe Conason that is as relevant today as it was when I first read it:
To observe the Washington press corps is to wonder why so many people who don’t remember what happened yesterday and can’t master basic logic are expected to analyze politics and policy.
This was a painful reminder that the mess we are in is not the fault of the Internet. Rather, it is part of a bigger picture that meant so much to Max Weber, who recognized that a society whose only value is market value faced the two-horned prospect of loss of meaning and loss of freedom.

From an idealized point of view, newspapers provided a base of activity for professionals whose primary expertise could be found in making sense out of what happened in the world on any given day. Unfortunately, when advertising ceased to be a source of sustaining revenue for newspapers, making sense was no longer a priority. Indeed, all priorities were lowered with the rise of simply being able to have enough cash on hand to pay the bills. In such a setting, meaning no longer has priority; and the noble effort of making sense out of a confusing world, which is captured admirably in the narrative threads that are woven together in Page One, is more likely to be punished than rewarded.

As my own writing progressed, I found myself less and less inclined to rail against a world in which meaning no longer had any currency. I suppose that music provided me with an escape hatch. I could deal with matters of meaning and sensemaking in a domain that had a limited audience, but it was an audience that still took those matters seriously.

Mind you, it is not as if the performing arts have elevated themselves above the dominating forces of market value. They have to worry about paying the bills just like the rest of us; but, as long as I can thank the Social Security Administration for my being able to pay my own bills, I can continue to keep my own attention focused on performance itself. Given Carr’s prioritization on the value of still being around to do one’s job, I suppose I should be thankful for what I have!

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