Monday, July 20, 2009

Cronkite, Ender's Game, and decentralization of news

Walter Cronkite died last week. I was six years old when he retired as the anchor of CBS news, but I remember him vividly. He was on our black and white TV all the time in the late 70's, and to me he was what news looked like: A white haired guy with a mustache, looking like Captain Kangaroo and speaking in a reassuringly solid bass voice.

I did not live through many of the events that made him famous. The Vietnam War, the assassination of Kennedy, and the moon landing were all before my time. I'm hearing a lot of background information about how he has become the voice that was most closely associated with the news of these events. As one of the most prominent news anchors in the world, it seems like he almost WAS what the news was. "That's the way it is" was his sign off.

It reminds me of an aspect of Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game, which I'm rereading once again, this time with my girlfriend Lynnea. Despite my usual observation that Orson Scott Card has been gradually turning into a lunatic over the past decade or so, good old Past Orson has got some great fiction behind him.

In many ways, Card's book is surprisingly prescient when it comes to technology. First written as a short story in 1977 before being novelized in 1985, it accurately describes email and the internet as a pervasive influence in the futuristic students' lives. The lingo isn't quite right, of course, but the general idea is pretty spot-on.

On the other hand some of it rings false -- really embarrassingly false. I'm focusing in particular on the subplot of Ender's brother and sister, Peter and Valentine. Little geniuses at the ages of 13 and 10 respectively, they decide to become influential political commentators by hiding their identities and writing articles and debates on "the news nets." They assume the identities of "Locke" and "Demosthenes" and, as planned, become famous bloggers (though this term isn't used, of course) to whom everyone listens. In short, it seems like they are trying to become the Walter Cronkites of their generation.

Which, to me, makes no sense. Because whether you think this is good or bad, I don't think that Walter Cronkite can really exist anymore in this post-internet world. Cronkite was a central voice of authority partly because everyone watched TV news, and there were three major networks at the time, and only an hour of major news per network per night. In this arena of scant competition, it's not surprising that one news anchor could become "the most trusted man in America."

Now there is not only network news, but many cable news networks that are devoted to covering stories around the clock. There are tens of thousands of political blogs, many of them individually influential in their own way. While there are news celebrities of a sort, none of them are watched by a simple majority of people in America.

Also, people are tending to pay attention to the news coverage that meshes with what they think. Some of us read lefty blogs like Daily Kos and Balloon Juice while listening to Thom Hartmann and watching Rachel Maddow. And then others watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. It's like there aren't just multiple sources of news; for some people, it almost seems as if there are multiple different kinds of reality.

Figuratively, of course. There's only one kind of reality, but most people filter their reality through the outlets from which they choose to receive it. Orson Scott Card's kids tried to rule the world by becoming the filter that controls the greatest market share of reality. Going a few steps further, George Orwell wrote 1984 laced with the fear that one group would squelch all others in monopolizing the way that people receive their information.

Something really different is happening to media instead. I think it's less frightening, but it's a lot weirder. While media companies may be consolidating, TV and newspaper sales are actually losing their monopolies on people's opinions, replaced instead by a million Lockes and Demosthenes(es?), who all want you to listen to their version of "the way it is."

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