In this New York Metro piece, Michael Wolff explains how it is that The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer interviewed him and then banished the tape to the Vault of the Forever Unseen:

I was, in my NewsHour interview, casual, offhanded, and cheerful in my disparagements of the various executives who run the media empires. Terry Smith, the NewsHour interviewer, and I had a good time. We were engaged in the kind of eye-rolling and insults that all media professionals engage in when we talk about our bosses and the sorry state of our business.

The issue, really, for the NewsHour producers was, I'd wager, not balance, but earnestness. I could surely have disparaged Michael Eisner and Gerald Levin and Rupert Murdoch (who, after all, have been widely disparaged) as much as I might have liked, if I had only done it without enjoying myself. If I had outlined the gravity of the situation rather than finding the humor in it, I would have been on sturdy and acceptable ground. Gravity implies valid criticism even of people who underwrite you and who, hence, you would rather not criticize. Humor implies meanness and while you can criticize the people who underwrite you, it is altogether another issue to be mean to them.

In this, the PBS news liberals, as well as the network and CNN liberals, are deeply conservative. They clench at the outré, the show-offy, the subversive, the comic. They insist on the high-sounding, the excessively dignified, the overly formal (that is, when they are not self-consciously going tabloid). Indeed, their response to charges of becoming too liberal is to become not more conservative, but more pompous in their self-regard (the Reagan biopic, which we now know was ordinary and inoffensive, was yanked from CBS also because of sudden concerns about "balance").

So Lehrer and company spiked the Wolff interview, ostensibly because it was lacking in balance, but in reality because it was lacking in niceness. And maybe it may have something to do with Wolff's perspective on why Fox News is such a hit:

Under the guise of political virtue, [Fox] scolds, berates, rebukes, criticizes, and has a high old time doing it. One of its central critiques is about the boringness and self-satisfied air of modern news. The bias stripe it so paints the mainstream broadcast media with so annoyingly and so frustratingly for the ever-so-cautious mainstream is not so much liberalism but a bias toward the conventional wisdom. Now, brilliantly, or duplicitously, or frighteningly, Fox has given its critique of boringness and complacency and sameness a right-wing argot. But what they mean when they say liberal at Fox has less to do with the distribution of wealth and, even, abortion rights than it does with a certain Establishment dislike. When they say liberal, people hear "dull and self-satisfied."

More often than not, callers to NPR's Talk of the Nation seem to be the very model of this modern major generalization. And anyway, what passes for "conventional wisdom" tends to tilt at least somewhat leftward; certainly the oracles thereof have been consistent in insisting upon both their wisdom and their conventionality (cf. the battle over Bush's judicial appointees, who, say the President's opponents, are way outside the mainstream).

Meanwhile, Kevin Holtsberry thinks we've gone too far towards Naughty at the expense of Nice:

There is no doubt that some people find pleasure in mercilessly skewering their opponents and doing so in a harsh and ugly way. There is also no doubt that a great many people enjoy watching this sort of activity. But those facts don't make it healthy or good.

We shouldn't be celebrating [what Wolff calls] "the joie de vivre of ridicule and verbal abuse." We should be seeking ways to ameliorate and soften the natural tendencies of media to sink to the lowest common denominator. In an age where constraints and restraint are seen as chains on people's rights and as tyranny I won't hold my breath.

I think I'm somewhere in between on this matter. I'd hate to see a world where Ann Coulter has to be sweet and demure; on the other hand, the heat-to-light ratio is showing far more BTUs than lumens these days, and I'm not convinced we're better off for it. Regular readers of this blog will note that this dichotomy informs many posts herein, to the extent that any post here can be said to be informed: sometimes I'm calm, sometimes I'm contentious. (Is this another way of saying "wishy-washy"? Could be. I haven't decided yet.)

"Nice guys," said Leo Durocher, "finish last." Maybe. (Actually, the really nice guys let her finish first.) It should be pointed out, though, that Leo the Lip never, ever questioned the integrity of an umpire. His eyesight, well, that's another matter.

The Vent

16 December 2003

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 Copyright © 2003 by Charles G. Hill