Each new medium — from the yellow press at the turn of the century, to the movies, television, trash television, video games and talk radio — has been the greatest threat to civilized discourse since, well, since the previous threat to civilized discourse.
So, it's something of a rite of passage that blogs in general — and Gawker in particular — are the subject of a critical cover story in this week's New York magazine, one of the last bastions of old-school journalism. The cover line: "Gawker.com and the culture of bile."
I'm assuming Vanessa Grigoriadis, an award-winning profile writer, has uncovered some juicy tidbits — Nick Denton is gay! Some of the writers have sex, occasionally with eachother, and do drugs! But surely her editors could come up with a description more original than "bile" for the output of this sour new form of journalism that so overwhelms their palates.
In 2004, in an essay on Gawker and its sister site, Wonkette, Slate's Jack Shafer used almost identical language:
"Are these blogs a part of the better world we hope to leave to our sons and daughters? Well, yes, if we intend for our children to grow strong from sucking bile instead of milk." [Slate, March 2004]
Internet media can indeed seem, particularly to the gentlemanly and leisurely American magazine business, a Hobbesian environment. The new journalism is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. For many New York writers, Gawker is a proxy for this harsh and competitive new world, because the gossip site covers the death agonies of Manhattan's old-line media industry, without much respect for the club's cosy rules.
But Gawker is hardly alone in its insolence. Hollywood publicists fear Perez Hilton and TMZ.com. Time's Joe Klein, a critic of the Democratic Party's left-wing netroots, wrote recently about the free-range lunacy of his blogging enemies. "Beware the Bloggers' Bile," he warned.
And bilious bloggers are hardly the first disrespectful outsiders to bother the media incumbents. Every age has its own cultural panic, in which uncouth interlopers threaten all that is decent and good, and the media establishment, like a stuffy dowager, strikes them from polite society.
Ken Auletta of the New Yorker now fawns over Rupert Murdoch. But let's dial Nexis back to 1995, when the Australian-born mogul was broadcasting trash to build a fourth TV network. In a Frontline documentary, Auletta portrayed Murdoch as an amoral wheeler-dealer and modern-day pirate. "What he produces," said Auletta, "can be viewed as toxic to our culture and our democracy."
Further back? Here's my favorite passage, from a magazine with a similar title, the New-Yorker at the beginning of the last century, when William Randolph Hearst was whipping up political conflict with his biliously yellow press.
"Hearst will either have to print decent newspapers or get out of the business.... As for Hearst personally... his reclamation and elevation to the plane of honorable men is not to be thought of. He will always remaind the degraded, unclean thing that he is, shunned by every honest citizen, and for whose wandering feet there shall be no resting place where the American flag rises and falls upon the breeze." [From the New-Yorker, Page 157, The Chief, by David Nasaw]
I presume Hearst missed a few Manhattan dinner parties. He survived.