Here’s Walter Russell Mead on the demise of Newsweek, which Barry Diller unloaded late last week to a new media owner with controversial religious connections. Excerpt:
Even so, we’re glad to see the Newsweek label survive; before becoming a vehicle for elite vanity journalism it was a serviceable and useful publication that provided millions of people with a weekly news digest. The competition helped keep Time on its toes, and though younger readers out there might have a hard time believing this, there was a time not all that long ago when it actually mattered what Newsweek said.
The rise of new publications like IBT illustrates the reality that the public still wants and needs news. Indeed, the global hunger for real news, useful filters and helpful analysis is growing. What isn’t growing is the desire to read the bloviating, self-indulgent prose of dozens of highly paid, self-important windbags who tweak the conventional wisdom week after week under the illusion that they are making some kind of contribution to public life. (Here at Via Meadia, none of our self-important windbags are highly paid.) The public appetite for theme and variation on the Davos party line is small, and the desire to pay hefty subscriptions for the privilege of reading elegantly phrased iterations of the elite consensus seems to have melted away.
Exactly. The Gene Robinson essay in Time that I blogged about over the weekend is a perfect example of an elegantly phrased iteration of the elite consensus around the issue of Christianity and homosexuality. When I was for a couple of years the editor of a newspaper opinion section, a piece like Gene Robinson’s is the last thing I would have published on the issue. All it does is tell the elite what they already believe.
For the record, I wouldn’t have run a conventional conservative piece on the issue either, because all it would have done is tell the anti-elite what it already believes. There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can have your opinion validated. The way I approached questions like this was to look for essays that challenged conventional wisdom in insightful ways. Had I been the Time assigning editor for a commentary piece on Pope Francis and homosexuality, I would have gone one of two ways:
1. Get a smart observer of American Catholicism — I’m thinking particularly of Michael Sean Winters, who is left-of-center but has a valuable capacity for thinking outside conventional boundaries — to write about the challenges facing both liberal and conservative religious leaders around this issue. It is true that the vast majority of young Americans do not share traditional Catholic/Christian teaching on homosexuality, but it is also true that the churches that have liberalized on the issue are failing as fast or faster than those that have not. What are the benefits and dangers of conforming religious doctrine to popular belief? The issue of sex — not just gay sex — and contemporary Christianity is a hugely difficult problem for all Christian churches in America today.
2. Find someone to write about how utterly parochial the concern about homosexuality is among American Christians, in a global context. Pope Francis has signaled from day one that his focus is going to be on global poverty. For the vast majority of Christians outside of the Europe and North America, suffering from poverty and its related conditions is the dominant concern. I would ask this writer to explain to American readers why the issue that predominates so much of their religious conversation comes far down the hierarchy of priorities for the leader of a global religion.
That’s just off the top of my head. In both cases, though, the readership would have learned something about the world as it is, not as they wish it were. Instead, Time hired the Bishop of Deep Blue America to write a piece that said nothing real, useful, or helpfully analytical. Why would people pay $30 a year for this kind of thing? More to the point, why would even a pro-gay, liberal reader pay $30 a year for this? Where is the value in the same old Establishment people — Gene Robinson now has a DC think tank sinecure — saying the same old things that validate the biases of an elite, one that is especially disconnected from the world of religion?
I could be wrong about this, but I don’t believe that the Time editors and people in their media elite class are more disconnected from the real world today than they ever were. It’s just that because of various social, philosophical, and technological reasons, their authority has been radically diminished. On the other hand, maybe there really is a greater disconnect today from our media institutions and mass culture because there is a greater disconnect between mass culture and all institutions — political, religious, and otherwise. In 1950, if Time published a reflection by a bishop (Episcopal, Catholic, whatever), it would mean something, because both Time and the Church held authority. For better and for worse, we’ve come a long way, baby.