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Progress and Freedom

A well-known literary agent recently confided to one of his clients, “Ours is a dying profession.” He was referring to the writing profession and to publishing. It has been a long, slow death since World War II, the watershed of many profound changes in American culture. Newspapers were the first to feel the cold hand of television’s power, its capacity to report the news as it was happening, with pictures and commentary on the scene. The Vietnam War marked the turning point of the new coverage, with reporters ducking for cover, dodging bullets, sometimes taking a bullet from a sniper’s rifle. The excitement of that coverage made magazines and daily newspapers seem antiquated, a hold-over from the 19th century.

The coming of seemed at first a friendly way to distribute literary works more widely and cheaply than the old brick-and-mortar shop did on Main Street. But the arrival of e-books and readers like Kindle, Nook, and the Tablet soon made clear that the hard-copy book was soon to become a thing of the past. What no one anticipated was Jeff Bezos’ next step – to make the distributor into the publisher, and to call the shots on who and what gets published, and at what cost.

When Chris Hughes, the 29-year old former Harvard roommate of Mark Zuckerberg, with whom he helped start Facebook, bought a majority stake in The New Republic in 2012, he was all for building up the weekly opinion review, once a towering organ of some of America’s best writers. Everyone loved him and was glad his money (some $600 million) was behind this aging mag. But like Bezos, who bought The Washington Post, he kept his real intentions to himself. No one knows even now what Bezos will do to the Post, which has been drifting to the right for the past few years to try to carve out a Republican-oriented readership, but the likelihood is that it will become more aggressively digital and internet-based.

That was the hand that Hughes played several weeks ago when he informed the editorial staff that the magazine would switch its base to the internet, and that content would have to adapt to the world of e-mags – i.e., shorter articles, punchier headlines, less attention to “content” in order to package a more advertiser-friendly sort of quick read that might attract J. Crew and Old Navy ads and travel pitches. I am reminded that Slate now provides readers the average time it takes to read selected articles, usually no more than a minute or two. In Hughes’ words, TNR would become a “vertically integrated digital media company.” Franklin Foer, the respected editor-in-chief was replaced by Gabriel Snyder, a media hack, after which ten others of the editorial staff resigned in protest, followed by Leon Wieseltier, the distinguished literary editor. The review was reduced from a weekly to a ten-week a year hardcopy publication. After the mass resignation, the paper version went into suspension.

Hughes is a 29-year old entrepreneur without much experience in how the intellectual life of the country functions. What he sees with investor-eyes is a chance to pluck an old, very respectable “product” out of the peripheries of the reading world and to dust it off, pump up the picture content, jazz up the headlines, and tailor the news to suit 18-35 year olds, the very same target audience of CNN and the networks.

The sudden extinction of hometown papers, mergers among papers, disappearing magazines of distinction, coincides with the extinction of species in the era of global warming. We’re told the oceans are about to give up the bio mass of their diversity in the next few years. In effect, technology is a kind of cultural global warming thinning out the diversity of the human mind in America. We will hear from fewer discerning voices in the future, and more from hip, TV-oriented writers who draw on the memory of their own time. Like most Americans these days, these journalists couldn’t find Eritrea on a map, or tell you when the American Civil War was fought. But their feel for the audience will keep them employed, and perhaps subscription rates to the net-edition of TNR will bulk up.

What rarely comes to the surface amidst all these changes is the question of whether or not a nation needs keen observers and experienced hands to weigh the present moment from a longer perspective. Is it necessary to know that we seem to be going backward as states rigorously deny women their equal rights? Or that voting restrictions in the Deep South are reinstating Jim Crow on a vast scale? Should we be aware that the present era of super wealth is a throwback to the Gilded Age? And that the concentration of vast wealth means that people like the Koch brothers can actually buy a Congress to force through the enactment of the XL Pipeline, weaken the Clean Air Act, and forestall reforms on fossil fuel providers? For 100 million dollars, the Koch brothers managed to buy enough Republicans to forge legislation that will ignore all the science of global change in order to expand Koch Industries?

If we don’t get the information we need, we may never know that our present crop of multi-billionaires are buying our future and selling it to China. When you silence a magazine from printing essays and arguments on the meaning of the present moment, you allow brute power to move ahead with its own blinkered ambitions. You have lost part of the conscience by which a nation guides and restrains itself.

Technology is a wonderful thing; I am happy to be writing these words on a Mac computer, effortlessly editing myself as I proceed. I don’t have three carbons rolled into an old manual Underwood. I don’t have an eraser wheel and brush to worry about. I don’t groan when I make a typo; I fix it with a backstroke, or it is corrected automatically. Bravo to the great technological genius of our time! But when technology is rolled into the public square to the cheers of the crowd, it should also be carefully examined to see if it might be a Trojan horse filled with the enemy that could easily erode our freedoms and take away a civilization in the name of progress.

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