Is Peggy Noonan Right?

In today's Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan sounds a pessimistic note about today's media landscape. Sparked by former president Bill Clinton's contentious interview with Fox's Chris Wallace, she hails the demise of the liberal elites who monopolized America's political agenda through control of the media but bemoans what she believes to be the proliferation of cultural detritus. I'll have more on this later but I thought it's worth putting out right now. Do you think she's right or wrong?

An excerpt:

The new media did not divide us. The new media gave voice to our divisions. The result: more points of view, more subjects discussed, more data presented. This, in a great republic, a great democracy, a leader of the world in a dangerous time, is not bad but good.

But nothing comes free. All big changes have unexpected benefits and unanticipated drawbacks. Here is a loss: the man on the train.

Forty and 50 years ago, mainstream liberal media executives--middle-aged men who fought in Tarawa or Chosin, went to Cornell, and sat next to the man in the gray flannel suit on the train to the city, who hoisted a few in the bar car, and got off at Greenwich or Cos Cob, Conn.--those great old liberals had some great things in them.

One was a high-minded interest in imposing certain standards of culture on the American people. They actually took it as part of their mission to elevate the country. And from this came..."Omnibus."

When I was a child of 8 or so I looked up at the TV one day and saw a man cry, "My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!" He was on a field of battle, surrounded by mud and loss. I was riveted. Later a man came on the screen and said, "Thank you for watching Shakespeare's 'Richard III.' " And I thought, as a little American child: That was something, I gotta find out what a Shakespeare is.

I got that from "Omnibus."

Those old men on the train--they were strangers, but in the age of media a stranger can change your life.

And because the men on the train had one boss, who shared their vision--he didn't want to be embarrassed that his legacy was "My Mother the Car"--and because the networks had limited competition, the pressure to live or die by ratings was not so intense as today. The competition for ad dollars wasn't so killer. They could afford an indulgence. The result was a real public service.

Now the man on the train is a relic, and no one is saying, "As the lucky holders of a broadcast license we have a responsibility to pass on the jewels of our culture to the young." In a competitive environment that would be a ticket to corporate oblivion at every network, including Fox.

TV is still great, in some ways better than ever. Freedom works.

And yet. When we deposed the old guy on the train, it wasn't all gain. No longer would the old liberals get to impose their vision. But what took its place was programming for the lowest common denominator. Things that don't make you reach. Things you don't want to teach. Eating worms on air-crash island with "Jackass."

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013