BROOKE GLADSTONE: Novak is just one, albeit very loud, voice in a media market now exploding with voices all talking to each other. That's a new development, but also a very old one, according to National Journal reporter William Powers. In the 19th Century, America was awash in biased newspapers, and that's what built our democracy. "Now," he writes in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, "newfangled niche marketing will pick up where those papers left off, after the long dry spell of consensus fueled by mainstream media." "It is," he says, "the oldest American paradox. Nothing unifies like individualism."
WILLIAM POWERS: Exactly. What happened in the 19th Century, Brooke, thanks in part to actually government policies, you had this amazing flowering of the newspaper culture in America. There were newspapers everywhere. There were hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them, and that continued right through that period, and my argument is that those newspapers, in a very real way, sort of taught us how to listen to each other and how to live with a diversity of opinions, and in a way, to be a stronger democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, technology, it seems, had the initial impact of bringing us all together in front of the little screen. Now, with cable TV and satellite radio and especially the internet, it's dividing us up again. So, is this all about technology in the end?
WILLIAM POWERS: No, it's not. The media tend to mirror broader things that are happening in the culture, so in the 19th Century, you had this incredible diverse flowering of political parties - the Whigs, the Know Nothing, the Free Soil, the Republican - they all arose in the 19th Century. And that was actually mirrored in the press, many of which were kind of wholly owned subsidiaries of parties, actually, and you had this media political sort of mirror image happening. The same thing happened in the middle of the 20th Century, just as we got out of World War II and entered the Cold War period, and this broad sort of cultural establishment formed in the '50s. You had this real sort of one establishment voice that appeared in the form of those networks and became in a way a kind of pater familias for our culture, and finally, you know, took the shape of Walter Cronkite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Right. Our universal uncle. I do buy the idea that the media mirror the political trends in the country, but you also had a limited resource - the broadcast frequencies - and so did regulation play a role?
WILLIAM POWERS: Regulation played a role. The networks were regulated in terms of content. I mean there was a real movement toward safer discourse and a more centralized kind of forum for argument. It was never specific - you know, we are a democracy, and you could go on the air and you were free to say a lot of things, but there was also kind of for business reasons and also for like regulatory reasons there was a kind of a weeding out of anything that felt sort of radical - you were trying to reach the broad middle - and that's how those networks became sort of the voice of the mainstream.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here's a bead that I thought you drew very interestingly in your piece, when you suggest that this business model that called for a centrist attitude and a political climate that seemed to demand it, was how we ended up with this cult of objectivity that you say was a short-lived phenomenon.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thanks to people like the Washington journalist Walter Lippmann, people began encouraging the idea of objectivity in journalism as an ideal that you could reach. That jibed very nicely with the rise of these powerful networks, because they had set themselves up as these authority figures, and now they were saying not only are we authority figures, but we can find some kind of objective truth. And this is how it appeared, and it became a very powerful force.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but where does it stand today? It seems that objectivity has taken quite a hit. In fact most of us, me included, don't believe it really can exist. The best you can be is fair.
WILLIAM POWERS: No, I agree, and that's what I think is one of the salutary effects of the niche media. The niche media offer you all these options - all kinds of variance on the truth - some of which are openly not even pretending to be objective, and many of which are actually seeking still to be objective, and all competing for attention. And the idea is that, as in the 19th Century, it's an education about other points of view. The establishment media of the 20th Century gave us the illusion that we all agreed in these centrist points of view, when we didn't. I mean in a way, they were ironing out some of the most interesting differences in our society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're right. We had a very narrow range of opinion then. But I wonder whether it isn't even narrower now and more extreme, because unlike the early days of our democracy, you can go through your whole life picking just one or two media outlets, and you don't hear what anybody else says. Back in the old days, we literally had public squares. Now, we all live in our individual bubbles. And I know you spoke to scholars who told you that this is how it was back in the early days of revolutionary America. We spoke to a scholar, Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and he says that the echo chambers we live in today actually foster extremism, because people only talking to themselves echo back the most extreme views. We don't inform each other at all. We're able, because of technology, to ignore each other completely.
WILLIAM POWERS: I don't know if I agree with that, Brooke. I mean first of all, the jury is still out. I could be dead wrong. But I think that if you look back at that 19th Century period, I would argue that people had less access then to other people's views, because they were living in relative isolation from each other. There was no TV screen where you could switch back and forth, and if you were a Fox person, you could at least come across what was being said on CNN by using the clicker. And there's no evidence that people are sticking on one channel and just staying there. In fact, what I think is that ideologues at this moment, people who do tend toward one side or the other, are in a moment of kind of elated fascination with the idea that there are media channels that look and feel just like them, because it's something we haven't had in our lifetimes. It's a brand new thing. I do believe that the novelty of that is going to wear off, because everybody gets tired of themselves. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I wish that were true, Bill. That's not my experience. But we just don't know yet, do we?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well, could I add one more thought?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure.
WILLIAM POWERS:I also think that, to believe that niche-driven media are going to fail, in my opinion, is not to have faith in human nature, because media channels are just a reflection of the people who start them up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Define failure.
WILLIAM POWERS: Failure would be the world that you limned - that we are all in our little pods and never hear each other. That would not be the kind of democracy I want to live in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Bill, thank you very much.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke. Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Powers' story The Massless Media is in the current edition of the Atlantic Monthly. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, analog audiotape passes from the scene, with some sorrow. So do rock critics over 50. Sorrow? Mmmm-not so much.