Thursday, December 08, 2005

Legacy Media

Once upon a time, circa 1983, I used to subscribe to Harper's magazine. Along with the Atlantic and the New Yorker, it was full of both good writing and provocative, timely sensibilities. Kurt Andersen, in this profile of retiring Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, reminds me why I don't subscribe anymore and don't miss it. Harper's has shriveled into something "single-mindedly partisan and smug."

In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

Back in the seventies and eighties, as Jack Shafer has noted in Slate, Lapham did publish right-wingers like Norman Podhoretz and James Q. Wilson. But these days, his magazine almost never runs features with which liberals would disagree. If Harper’s has evolved, it has narrowed.

“That’s what’s happened to American journalism in general,” Lapham says. “In the seventies, I thought a lot of the right’s criticism of the doctrinaire liberal positions of the sixties was acute and witty. After they came to power in the middle eighties,” however, “they didn’t want to talk to anybody but themselves. The media broke up into audiences on whom they can rely.”

Exactly. Public discourse now takes place in echo chambers, each side preaching to its own choir. And that’s bad, isn’t it?

“Yeah, that is bad,” he says. “Most obviously so in the success of Fox News.” His answer suggests that he doesn’t really regret ideological balkanization as much as the associated rise of the right-wing media.

I ask if he’s heartened by the lifting of the post-9/11 chill on debate and dissent. “It’s heartening to me,” he says, “when I see Frank Rich or [Paul] Krugman write about this gang. The question is, will it lead to political change? We still have Time putting Ann Coulter on the cover.”

We are talking past each other. As much as he decries oligarchies, Lapham seems nostalgic for the old media oligarchy. Back when liberals were definitely in charge of the press, Lapham could abide publishing conservatives because they were safely powerless—and because they were horrified by the twilight of the American idea.

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