Say Uncle, Walter
As Saddam fell, so did the media big-wigs who used to believe that they shaped American public opinion.
12:00 AM, Apr 23, 2003 • By NOEMIE EMERY
SOME TIME in the morning of April 9, 2003, as the statue of Saddam Hussein was being hauled down in Baghdad, another statue--of Walter Cronkite, famed CBS newsman--hacked at with hammers by various bloggers, also came crashing down. Cronkite, once called "the most trusted man in America," was believed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to have turned the American public against the Vietnam War. This time, Cronkite had done his best to turn the American public against the war in Iraq, but no one paid any attention. Of course, he had been out of public life for quite a long time, but this fails to explain it: His network successors did their best to turn the public against it, and no one had listened to them, either. In fact, as Cronkite's statue was falling, reports came in that millions of former supporters of Dan Rather and Peter Jennings had put their arms down and melted back into the populace, some finding shelter in the arms of Fox News.
At the same time, word came in from numerous generals embedded in networks that the New York Times, like the city of Baghdad, might also "fall from within"--in this case, meaning that it would continue to sell and publish, but few would believe a word in it. These experts explained that while the Times had been softened up by years of sniping by Andrew Sullivan and other bloggers, the main blows were inflicted by "friendly fire"--large bombs set off within its own fortifications, by R.W. Apple and by Maureen Dowd.
This sudden collapse of the media giants is part of a culture-wide trend. As Victor Davis Hanson noted recently, a vast chasm of sense has been opened between teachers and taught, preachers and preached-at, people who make the films and people who see them, people who write books and people who read them, those who produce news and those who consume it. This calls into question a guiding belief of the culture: that power resides in the mouth of the bullhorn, if not in the barrels of guns. It is possible that people are not, after all, very malleable. It is possible that in the past, when "opinion leaders" tracked more closely with public opinion, that they were reflecting the public's ideas, and not leading it.
It is possible, too, that people can recognize swill when they see it, and learn to discount claims that run counter to what they experience. Films keep showing the suburbs as hellholes, and people keep living in suburbs. They know that this country, while far from ideal, is, by real world standards, extremely successful. They know that Iraq is not Vietnam, that George W. Bush is not Lyndon B. Johnson, and that Basra is not My Lai.
For years, conservatives have been complaining of liberal media bias, and longing for the happy days of their justification, when the public would share in their justified anger. Now it's here, but it also seems different: It's coming not from the right, but from the middle, and it feels like indifference, not rage. People aren't protesting the media; they're simply ignoring the bias. The press has gone further and further left as the Republican party reached parity status; support for abortion has steadily fallen, and opposition to quotas holds firm. It is possible that the liberal slant has gone on for so long and become so predictable that it has become white noise: a high, steady whine that drones on in the background until at last it stops being heard. People expect the Times to sometimes slant stories, and they factor this into their reading. Over time, it ceases to register. Another Times poll finds Bush in deep trouble; another film star embarks on a protest; another film is made about bourgeois repression--Oh, please.
Pity the left. In the 1960s, it was sent on the Long March through the institutions of information and culture; hoping in time to control all the bullhorns: the schools and the churches; the films, arts, and music; the publishing houses; the networks and press. And now that they have them, they turn out to be worthless. Their worst fears have been realized, and the country is growing in power and confidence. The Long March to sell us on fear and failure is ending in freedom and flags.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.