Who’s more afraid of obsolescence, newspapers or the GOP?

It’s ironic that the bandleaders for anti-Tea Party derision form the one group more afraid of the future than the cultural Luddites in the GOP. Or did it escape your attention that newspaper readers are just as old, white and predominantly male as Republican constituents? Or that newspapers and traditional media are far more at risk of obsolescence than the Republican Party?

It’s no secret that I think the most savage, fearless and insightful cultural commentary is found at the Last Psychiatrist blog. In “How does the Shutdown relate to Me” he writes,

The shut down was the inevitable consequence of a government not permitted to compromise, smothered by the oppressive gaze of a kamikaze media that will kill itself and your country just to get a headline today.  …   The media demands partisanship, conflict, opposing sides, but despite having 24 hours to fill will never, ever explain the interplay between complex issues, preferring to feature them in segments while hyping them to a crisis

Within the context of his post, I think this is accurate. But, the implication that the media is sitting in the newsroom, twiddling their moustaches and giggling at what they’ve wrought in terms of public discourse is laughable.

I work in a newsroom.  Outside of a WWI trench its hard to think of a more steadily traumatized, demoralized group of people. I’ve seen three sets of layoffs in 15 months. In short, this is not an environment exuding power and influence – it’s a group willing to do almost anything to hang on.

To make matters worse, the older journos have discovered they’ve been lied to. They were taught in J school that reporting is a calling, similar to medicine or the priesthood. That the very fabric of democracy would be rent asunder if they didn’t do things just so. For them, adherence to journalistic convention has a theological bent that, like the GOP, makes it really difficult to adapt to the new context. Belief in the fifth Estate is part of a wider worldview where they play a central part. They will defend it like cornered rats. Until they get fired.

So there is a feeling of debasement as now the media serves a similar role in politics as margin debt during bull markets – they wait for the wire story from Reuters and then provide the leverage, the outrage and the hype. Desperate for attention, everything must be more momentous, more terrifying, more heartwarming “PLEASE JUST LOOK WILL YOU! WE”LL DO ANYTHING! HERE’S ANOTHER KITTEN ITS GOT A LITTLE WHITE MASK LIKE A RACCOON! – an entire industry chock full of Miley Cyruses only with less focus.

I used to think it was unfortunate coincidence that traditional media outlets are being starved for resources at a time when the body politic is so fractured and angry but really, it’s all part of the same erosion in public trust. Marriage, news media, Congress, the presidency, the financial system – what were considered the institutional pillars of society are either changing fundamentally or almost universally reviled.

The Internet, and the access it provides, has unleashed incredible changes and investors should recognize a familiar pattern  – the extension of innovation continuing until something breaks. The limited liability corporate structure mobilized an ocean of investment capital until the South Sea bubble wiped everyone out. Securitization was another great idea that, extended far beyond the realms of common sense, almost destroyed the global financial system.

The shutdown highlights the bizarre paradox of the Internet access and the likely source of the social version of “something breaking”  – the rise of tribalism in response to broader reach. Confronted confused with ten different perspectives on what’s happening or how to live or who’s fault everything is, and unable to completely trust any of the sources, vast swathes of the population are saying “Fuck it, I don’t like what I’m seeing online, I don’t feeling confused and afraid so I’m going believe what’s emotionally and financially convenient for me and hang on to it like grim death, no matter who gets hurt.”

The Internet means that the local news monopolies and duopolies have been broken and there is no unifying, central source of information. I’m not saying the New York Times is unreliable, by the way, just that a lot of people believe it is. And they’ve reverted to outlets more conducive to their sensibilities no matter how irrational they are. This happens on the left and right.

Longer term, we’ll sort this out. But until then, the death throes of a number of conventions and institutions will likely provide us with a continual series of messy spectacles.

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