23 November 2008


Defender of the Printed Word:
Elisha Cook, Jr., as Samuel Cogley

There’s an episode of the old Star Trek series, entitled “Court Martial,” in which Captain Kirk is accused of murder and somewhat dismayed to discover that his defense attorney is still consulting books. You know, bound paper pages with printed text on them. In the 23rd century, with its all-knowing, all-powerful computers, books are considered unwieldy, outmoded, underperforming. And so before defending Kirk, the attorney (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) must defend the book itself. To sum up his argument, a book is trustworthy. Before the episode is out, the old boy has been proven right, because computer manipulation is precisely how Kirk got framed. You couldn’t monkey with a book that way, by golly.

Because that episode was written (by Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos) and filmed (yes, on film) in 1966, today’s viewers may not grasp just how prescient it was. At the time, computers were still mammoth objects requiring punch cards and all sorts of oddly analog technology; they hadn’t been linked to video, or to any kind of imaging, and they hadn’t entered the home or the public consciousness. If they posed any threat to established societal norms, the threat was treated as comedy — as in the Katharine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy movie, The Desk Set — in which old-fashioned human heads and hands would always prevail. As recently as a few years ago, with the Internet revolution already underway (and already largely victorious), the consensus was that it would not — could not — replace the printed word. You can’t read a computer in bed, as you can a book, and you can’t read a computer in the bathroom, as you can a magazine or newspaper, it was said by many people (including me), and therefore society would hold onto these things, albeit to a lesser degree than in centuries past. With the apparent success, still small-scale, of the Kindle and similar hand-held devices, we are daily being proven wrong. Soon, and much earlier than the 23rd century, it will be only old cranks like Jim Kirk’s attorney who consult the printed page. And that’s just for starters.

To the publishing industry, the new developments have proven catastrophic, and we have yet to see the emergence of the genius who figures out how newspapers, magazines, and book publishers can adapt satisfactorily: everything being done so far is piecemeal and patchwork, and the decision-makers are in a panic. In the good old days, a newspaper sold advertising space, which the subscriber was presumed to read with the same regularity and trust (or gullibility) as that with which she read the headlines; advertisers understood this, and a reliable commerce was established. Today I read The New York Times online, without paying to do so (it’s no longer required), and the Times website and its advertisers resort to sneaky tricks to make sure I pay attention to their pitches. (The worst of these is the “redirection,” in which one clicks on a link to an article, but is redirected to an advertisement instead. There’s no analogy to this in the printed edition: no advertisement actually prevents my looking at the article I seek.) Yet ad revenues continue to decline, and the reader can get news from any number of sites. If the reader isn’t picky about what constitutes reliable reporting, the choices are beyond counting.

This is having drastic effects on editorial content, with potentially grave ramifications for society. A morning edition is no longer sufficient for any newspaper, because readers may consult the site at any hour, with the expectation of the latest information; all news sites must be updated continually. (This is more menacing even than the “24-hour news cycle” initiated by CNN, which has altered the electorate’s perceptions — a leader is considered ineffectual if s/he requires more than a few hours to respond to an emergency — and diverted its attention from pressing issues to soap-operatic stories like the Anna Nicole Smith saga.) Magazines that print weekly must now update their websites daily, or more frequently. That’s well and good for People, but tough for The New Yorker, with higher standards of style and content. It’s tough to crank out thoughtful writing at high speed; there’s no time to polish the prose. (On the other hand, the Internet permits one to continue editing long after publishing — as I do, revising these little essays compulsively.) Mainstream publications now promise “exclusive content” that sounds good, but it can’t be protected: it’s downloaded by amateurs and posted globally — and why would a reader pay to read something on a magazine’s website that she could find for free on a blog? Never mind that 99 percent of the rest of the material on the blog is factually inaccurate and possibly misleading.

So how can a publication continue to make enough money to stay afloat — to pay for the reporting — to keep citizens informed? Most can’t, which is why you see massive layoffs, and formerly reputable news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times promising to adjust reporting to the needs of advertisers.

What’s most terrifying to all the decision-makers in the print media is that a significant chunk of the American public reads almost nothing. Market research can even pinpoint who those non-readers are: heterosexual males. They are otherwise occupied with video games and Internet pornography to pick up a novel. Heterosexual women still read what’s called “chick lit,” and gay men read the gay equivalent, and that’s it; demographics for nonfiction are only a little more reassuring. Thus book publishers are increasingly unwilling to accept any work that isn’t a “sure thing” — ideally a hot topic addressed as nonfiction by a celebrity author.

I read the news today, oh boy.
The Kindle, with several former trees

Of course, digital technology has upended every kind of communication, and the related businesses.

Television news can be produced more cheaply now. As outlets such as New York One have proven, it’s now possible for a reporter in the field to function as camera operator, sound operator, editor, producer, researcher — a one-person news team, paid a single salary instead of twelve. That’s great, but it bypasses the old system of checks and balances, and if the lone reporter is in haste to make air, or misled by an interview subject, who’s to raise a red flag or pull the story altogether?

There are commercial ramifications, too. A cursory glance at YouTube, for example, demonstrates that it must be incredibly easy to take a clip from a news program, whether broadcast or cable, and to post it where it’s readily accessible, without any consideration for the original program’s advertisers (the ads are cut out) or for the paychecks of the men and women who reported the story. YouTube has a further advantage over television: the clips stay up indefinitely, creating a news archive that can be searched, then personalized by bookmarking or “favoriting”. Did you miss Barack Obama’s speech on race? I did — but no fear, it’s still on the Internet, and one of these days, I’ll get around to watching it.

Confident: Dan Rather

The broadcast networks were under pressure already from the 24-hour cable stations to keep current: instead of making an appointment to watch the evening news, the viewer can turn to CNN at any moment that’s convenient. That pressure is intensified by the increased competition from the Internet — and by the consequent dwindling financial resources. Dan Rather has long insisted that, ultimately, Americans will gravitate toward news outlets, whether print or electronic, that are reliably accurate, and to a degree, I think he’s right. But accuracy is more often defined now by ideology (Fox News, e.g.) than by authority (the mainstream media), and in any case the difference between accuracy and authenticity is semantic, in a nation whose citizens no longer see the point in visiting the real Venice when the fake one is so much cleaner and closer by — and hey, you can gamble in the one that’s in Las Vegas.

Cabell: Record Holder

The recording industry has been hammered by the ease of downloading music: there’s no means, at present, of protecting copyright or insisting on payment for recorded material. This is especially threatening to classical music, which is more expensive to produce quite simply because it entails more paychecks — an orchestra of 60, instead of a band of four; a chorus of 60, instead of a chorus of three; a dozen lead singers, instead of one. It is thus a very big deal when a record label launches new talent (such as the young soprano Nicole Cabell, on Decca), signs known but still-rising singers (such as Joyce DiDonato, on EMI), or sticks with established stars (such as Susan Graham, on Warner). [I have just written an article, for Opera News, on the solo album and the changing marketplace; that article will appear in the magazine’s January issue.]

Dessay, with a few friends

Already the labels are turning more frequently to live performances to record complete operas (which is great for immediacy, not so great for correcting a missed entrance or sour note), whether for audio or video release. That’s a smart solution, but not a lasting one, because yet again the recorded material shows up for free on the Internet almost instantaneously. The video quality on YouTube is still lousy, the sound quality on my laptop little better, but I can watch enough of Natalie Dessay in Laurent Pelly’s staging of La Fille du Régiment that I don’t mind waiting to buy the DVD.

Book publishers and record labels alike suffer — perhaps surprisingly — with the rise of online shopping. Already the behemoth chain stores, whether Barnes & Noble or Tower Records, had gobbled up independent merchants, forcing little guys out of business both through sheer size and through their ability to discount prices far below what mom-and-pop shops could afford. Retribution was swift, as online stores — most notably Amazon — cut prices further, with delivery to the doorstep of the purchaser or the recipient of a gift. Tower went under, Walden Books got bought out, etc.; the shakeout continues, yet even Amazon is sweating, because more and more consumers are turning to downloads (which offer almost-instantaneous delivery, and thus instant gratification) of music and video from services such as iTunes, and many more turn to “sharing” downloads — that is, not paying for the material.

Quite apart from the financial questions, the consumer is getting fooled by the ease and availability of downloads. For anyone old enough to remember browsing in a brick-and-mortar book or record store, it’s clear that “browsing” an online merchant’s offerings is a completely different process. The chances of stumbling across something you weren’t seeking, never heard of, didn’t expect to like — and having your worldview changed (which any good piece of music or writing will do) — are reduced almost to nothingness.


Every time I place an order with Amazon, I receive “recommendations” of “related titles you may like.” Without fail, these are better-known works than the ones I ordered — more popular, more obvious. And in the case of my classical-music purchases, the “recommendations” usually are far off-base. That I admire Gabriel Bacquier and Thomas Hampson doesn’t mean I want to buy a Josh Groban album, even if I did buy an N*Sync album recently. (I had my reasons.) That I admire Marilyn Horne and Ewa Podles´ doesn’t mean I don’t want to buy an Alberta Hunter, Cyndi Lauper, or Tammy Wynette album. The link here is not only genre but diva-worship; no one at Amazon understands that. Except when I go to a specialty site, I find that classical music is badly served on the Internet — because of the ignorance of those who serve it. Since music education in America is extinct, there’s no question why this is so, nor is there reason to hope for improvement. The consumer will continue to suffer, though I daresay we’ll continue to find it easier to do so.

Hollywood is experiencing comparable difficulties: films and television shows can be downloaded, legally or otherwise, and again YouTube and other sites provide clips, and in some cases entire episodes or movies. Thanks to YouTube, for example, I was able to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Bette Davis by watching What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The film is chopped up into ten segments, but it’s all there, free for the taking.

Ya mean he didn’t pay, Blanche?

Moreover, more folks at home are taking advantage of new technology to make their own video programming. Some of this is about as interesting as watching slides of your cousin’s trip to Chippewa Falls, and many clips wouldn’t make the grade on America’s Funniest Home Videos. But some of the original content is pretty good.

One of my favorites is a sporadic series of dialogues by VGL Gay Boys, two New York comics. You wouldn’t want to watch them at work, because that’s time theft, not because they’re smutty. You could play their stuff for your mother — well, not my mother, but yours. In time-honored tradition, Jeffery Self is unflappable, Cole Escola overexcitable (and does a brilliant Bernadette Peters imitation) while discussing the contemporary scene; it’s not hard to imagine them translating this to longer, narrative projects, like Hope & Crosby, Abbott & Costello, or Martin & Lewis before them. Elsewhere on the Internet, a fan-produced series of new Star Trek episodes was so well-done that some of the participants in the television series dropped by, and the path to the next movie sequel was paved: for the first time on the big screen, the original characters will be played by new, young actors, instead of by the original cast.

Already I’ve attended dinner parties where, at the end of the meal, we’ve sat around watching YouTube clips, much the way my parents’ generation used to play comedy albums at a party. For many people, watching even substandard material on the Internet has replaced older viewing habits; if they watch broadcast or cable television at all, they record the program (using TiVo, DVR, etc.), skip over the commercials, watch numerous times (or not at all) at their own convenience, then move on to something else.

A lot of what gets posted on YouTube is pirated. Long before the recent revival of Sondheim’s Company closed, it was possible to watch Raúl Esparza’s shattering account of “Being Alive,” live in performance, because somebody recorded it with a cell phone and posted it. This is a complete violation of almost every rule — including those that admonish spectators to turn off their cell phones — but it doesn’t seem to matter. Tap in “South Pacific,” and you’re liable to get a selection ranging from Kelli O’Hara in the current revival, Mitzi Gaynor in the movie, Mary Martin in the original production, and some high school kids in suburban Arkansas. None of the producers, nor any of the creative people involved, gets any money from this. And without money, there will be fewer new productions, fewer new works.

Here again, the people with the money want projects without risk: in Hollywood, this means witless, explosion-filled blockbusters on the big screen, “reality” programming on the small, and on Broadway, it means tourist-attraction mega-musicals in which all artistic considerations are subordinate to the spectacle and to the familiarity of the source material. Broadway shows are directed to tourists who liked the movie Legally Blonde and want to say they’ve seen a Broadway musical, and to those who want to say they’ve seen Beauty and the Beast because the neighbors saw it six years ago. They don’t care who’s in the show, who wrote it, or what it sounds like.*

VGL: Escola & Self

Thus Kelli O’Hara and Raúl Esparaza may have difficulty finding good parts in new musicals (or even in good revivals) any time soon, and that the VGL Gay Boys may have even greater difficulty finding backing for the longer-form material I’d like to see.

For what it’s worth, the adult-entertainment business is suffering, too. Who wants to pay $30 or $40 for a porn DVD, when you can download the original for free, or find something equally free, with amateurs doing something equally hardcore, on XTube? Sure, the production values are lousy, and the models are seldom attractive in any conventional way, but it turns out that the average viewer wasn’t interested in anything but the old in-and-out. And maybe it’s easier to fantasize when you can’t really see or hear what’s happening onscreen.

Technology expert and social critic Aniston

Still photography, especially photojournalism, has felt the digital impact, too, and the industry responded much as others have. The advent of new technology made editing, researching, and delivering photos easier, but it also created an enormous backlog: every photograph since the age of Niepce and Daguerre had to be digitized and catalogued, or it couldn’t be sold. This was more than most small agencies could handle; they simply didn’t have the staff. Meanwhile, prices were falling, because suddenly everybody could take decent pictures; books and magazines, beset with their own financial woes, couldn’t afford to pay as much as they used to, and likewise couldn’t afford to commission photographers for as many exclusive shoots. Exclusivity (and copyright) became a moot concept, because once published, an image would be scanned and uploaded on the Internet, where everybody and her sister could get it for free, make a personal scrapbook or publish it again, to illustrate a webpage or blog (like this one, I confess), from which even more people would download it. None of us are paying rights.

Smaller agencies collapsed; many shut down, while others happily allowed themselves to get bought up by a tiny handful of mega-agencies. The consequences are precisely those that we’ve seen in other industries: greater ease, less selection, less new work. Where fashion photography is concerned, that’s not so much a problem: digital technology has not yet replaced clothing, so some people are still making enough money to pay for pictures.

But where photojournalism is concerned, conglomeration poses the same threats to American liberty as those posed by the megacorporations that now control television and radio journalism. Independent reporting is squelched. Any digital data can be manipulated: pictures can be Photoshopped, sounds can be distorted easily. But viewers and listeners, readers and voters can be easily manipulated, too. We saw that in the buildup to the Iraq War; we saw it on Star Trek.

Thus the ramifications of the digital revolution implicate anybody who works with words, sounds, and images — namely, almost everyone I know, and everyone like us. It is as if we were all medieval monks, happily illuminating manuscripts until the day Herr Gutenberg cranked up his printing press. Those monks had other work to fall back on; the rest of us don’t. Many of my friends are currently under-employed, or unemployed. The better allusion may be not to monks but to dinosaurs: if we can’t adapt, we’ll die. Adaptation won’t be any easier, when the rest of the world’s economy is in crisis. T.S. Eliot could find work in a bank, but I’ll bet that I can’t, nowadays.

We’ve all been so caught up in the benefits of the digital revolution that few of us have taken stock of the liabilities. They’re graver than we know, since they’re only just emerging, and many, as I say, are long-term threats. The New York Times has devoted its Sunday magazine to the revolution, yet one can see at a glance (starting with its cover girl, Jennifer Aniston, that great expert on information technology) that the reporters and their interview subjects have failed to grasp the magnitude of the change, much less to uncover any hopeful routes to survival. That’s what prompted the present outburst. How can we endure when words, images, and sounds are simultaneously more highly valued, more widely distributed, and less highly paid than ever before?

To many of my readers, none of what I’ve said will be news. “Of course the sky is falling, Chicken Little, but what do you intend to do about it?”

I’ll send you an e-mail when I figure that out.

*I’m not sure that Broadway audiences can hear at all. Microphones and amplifiers on the last few musicals I’ve seen were cranked to ear-splitting levels — I won’t even venture into a rock musical, simply because I fear I’ll never hear anything again. Recordings, with the forward placement of the vocalist (in any genre), gave listeners unreasonable expectations of the human voice’s capacities to project; rock recordings made listeners deaf. Thus, even for a conventional musical such as The Producers, the music blasts out of speakers bigger than Nathan Lane, robbing the show of its human dimension; even when the guy is standing right in front of you, you’re not hearing his voice, you’re hearing a machine’s representation of his voice — very, very loud. Among the great pleasures of my recent trip to New York was hearing musical-comedy numbers sung by Kelli O’Hara and Paolo Szot at the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala — without amplification. Oh, it was wonderful — until the microphones came out.


Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate this reference to Desk Set. Its message, that organized information does not always equal knowledge, resounds 50 years later. And on another level, the Hepburn/Tracy scenes (rooftop, apartment) are well-written and well-acted, remain fresh and delightful year in and year out.

William V. Madison said...

Yes, it’s only recently that I’ve come to realize what an inspiration Bunny Watson (Hepburn’s character) is to you, SK.