This article, by Andie Tucher, ran in our November 2001 issue.
Back in August, when I agreed to write a piece on the future of journalism, I figured that peering ahead to explore where we’re going wouldn’t be terribly hard for a journalism historian like me who has spent a lot of time peering back to explore where we’ve been. So much seemed predictable.
More media companies would merge or expand, leading to more random acts of synergy and more blatant concern for the bottom line. More Matt Drudges, their essential inanity exposed, would flame out as the Future of Journalism. More new-media hipsters, undaunted by the souring of the dot-com economy, would continue to write gleeful, poke-in-the-eye columns about how frightened the old-media dinosaurs are by the youth, the energy, the immediacy, and the democratic openness of the Web. More old-media dinosaurs would struggle to hold their consumers with stories about crime, celebrities, health, scandal, and the man-monkey that wasn’t, in fact, terrorizing India. They would become less and less distinguishable from each other and from everything else out there in print and on the air. Irony would rule, seriousness would be for sissies, and the late-night comics would still be considered valid sources for news.
What else could you expect, really, from a nation generally peaceful and still noticeably prosperous? A nation where most people considered public affairs boring and politics essentially irrelevant to their quest for personal fulfillment?
That was, of course, Before, and now that the terrorist attacks have so radically changed the national landscape, that vision of the future of journalism seems as quaint as the world of, say, the 1920s — with which, after a few minor substitutions like “radio” for “Web” or “Winchell” for “Drudge,” the United States that was smashed on September 11 bore some striking parallels. Now other sets of historical parallels kick in and other visions of the future of journalism arise: the unsparing photojournalism of the 1930s that brought home the silent aches of the Depression; the humane and courageous coverage of the war in the ’40s and of the civil rights movement that came after it; the feisty investigative reporting of the late ’60s and early ’70s that dared to question authority. The “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II was great because it had to be — because it faced a greater crisis than any its parents had or its children would. And if the United States is entering yet another era of pain and challenge, a small compensation might be that journalism too has a history of rising to the occasion.
To rise to this occasion, to meet the challenge of filling the public’s urgent need for information about the shape of things to come, will not be easy. Journalism will obviously have to become less trivial — but it will also have to become less shallow, less breathless and hasty, less content with articles that don’t jump, Web sites that don’t scroll, and evening-news pieces that don’t last longer than the list of side effects in the heartburn commercial. We might even see the revivification of genres and conventions that just weeks ago had seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.
Genres like the documentary. We had arrived at the point where to many people the word “documentary” meant “Ken Burns,” and a “Ken Burns documentary” meant a film with the color of honey and the pace of molasses; the musical score would be plaintive; you would receive three copies of the companion book as holiday gifts; and the first episode would contain at least six repetitions of the phrase “uniquely [pause] American.” Your heart would probably be warmed.
At the same time, however, fewer and fewer documentaries by anybody not named Burns were seeing air. PBS still has its long-running weekly series — The American Experience, NOVA, P.O.V., Frontline — as well as Bill Moyers’s occasional specials. But the Burns legacy seemed to have made PBS and its corporate and foundation sponsors hungry for more Burns-like ratings from more Burns-like blockbusters on generally feel-good topics like jazz or baseball, and less interested in modest stand-alone independent productions that might actually make the viewer feel unsettled or challenged.
Cable had a busy schedule of things that resembled documentaries, but except for some of the productions of the consistently surprising HBO, most of those betrayed, in their formulaic sameness, the constraints of tiny budgets and cramped schedules. And the networks had just about given up on the serious long-form exploration of current affairs in prime time — those White Papers and Reports that used to be a modest but obligatory part of the season line-up and whose producers were often allowed the luxury of plotting their deadlines on the calendar, not the watch.