Out with the old, in with the new

Photo by Sebastian Müller

Photo by Sebastian Müller

For those of you who do not follow the HBO series The Newsroom, penned by that most provocative of television writers, Aaron Sorkin, you have missed a most disturbing plot twist in the series’ final episodes that has actually made me lose sleep.

The series centers on the newsroom of the fictional 24-hour news channel, ACN, which is struggling in fourth place behind the other news channels. In addition to ongoing legal and news gathering issues, the company and network is about to be sold, leaving the fate of its staff in limbo. In typical dramatic fashion, a buyer has appeared at the last minute, offering to save the company, but at a great price. This buyer wants to complete reformat and reshape the network’s news coverage for the 21st century and for the 18-25 demographic. His vision is to do away with old-fashioned investigative reporting, holding a story until it is confirmed by multiple sources, and other bastions of professional journalism and instead rely upon social media and amateur “reporters” with smart phones to be the eyes and ears of the network.

Some of you—I am assuming under the age of 30 or so—are asking yourselves “So what’s the problem?” while others—I assuming over the age of 40 or so—are nodding understandably. But this is not simply a question of age. My former employer, The New York Times, yesterday announced its latest round of buyouts, and another group of journalists, many of them with more than 30 years of experience and world-class, joined me as members of Facebook’s The New York Times Alumni group, a group only two weeks old and already boasting more than 1,700 members and counting. We’ve also had two lunches already in our nascent stages, reminiscing about the old days and exchanging stories about the journalists who mentored us and experiences that shaped us and helped make us who we are today, even if we are no longer Times people or even journalists.

What we, of a certain generation, of a certain collection of experiences, learned to appreciate was the importance of quality, of professionalism, of doing a job to the best of your ability and then some. Many of started on the bottom—and I mean the bottom—and worked our way up, and it was hard, hard work. Some had it a little easier, but no one had it easy. So the idea that we could work so hard and be so easily replaced by a kid with a smartphone was anathema.

Now, it is simply the way it is.

Richard Hofstadter (1964) wrote about this kind of phenomenon 50 years ago when he published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He was writing first about the aftermath of the McCarthy era but more about American culture and society in general. And really, little has changed in all these years. Ray B. Williams, writing for Psychology Today notes the same trends. He says:
People accept without questioning, believe without weighing the choices, join the pack because in a culture where convenience rules, real individualism is too hard work. Thinking takes too much time: it gets in the way of the immediacy of the online experience. (14)

Williams cites an article by Bill Keller, writing for The New York Times, where Keller discusses the differences between writing for “traditional” versus social media. He argues that social media rewards partisanship, immediacy, and anonymity, thus creating a “clubby” atmosphere, where shouting to be heard is the norm, slogans and labels prevail, and unpopular views can barely survive.

However, this is not to say the Internet or all social media is evil or anti-intellectual, or that the old shouldn’t make way for the new. Indeed, I recently spoke with a high school student who is using social media to encourage other teenagers to “try” classical music, by making classical music more accessible without dumbing it down. Some of the most interesting discussion threads on this New York Times alumni group—and one of the longest—involve reminisces about mentors and the best advice people received as young reporters and editors. From the perspective of age, we do look back, and we do see how important it is to be in culture where we have been able to find mentors, guides, and role models. As psychologists, we already know how valuable having mentors, guides, and role models is in as we journey through our careers.

We don’t have to dumb down our media, or our educational system, or our culture to make it accessible to a younger generation or to a smartphone generation. But neither should age, experience, professionalism, and intellect be dirty words. We simply have to work harder to find ways to connect, to bridge the divide, to relate.

— Sarah Kass

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