Reconciling the Old and New Media  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   April 1997

Reconciling the Old and New Media   

Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits & Blockheads like William Bennett
By Jon Katz
Random House

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits & Blockheads like William Bennett
By Jon Katz
Random House
212 pages; $21

Ironic as it may seem, considering his book's subtitle, Jon Katz fancies himself a peacemaker in the cultural battle between generations. He has picked an odd way to go about this reconciliation, writing in wiseguy prose and taking a sledgehammer to those who disagree with him. For instance, he brands former Education Secretary William Bennett as "a dealer, selling cultural crack to mediaphobes at $30 a hardcover pop."

But much of what Katz says makes sense. "This cultural conflict, the endless nyaaah-nyaaahing about old versus new media, is pointless," Katz writes. "There is, of course, no good reason for us to have to choose between old and new media. Both are valid and useful."

Despite this attempt to strike common ground, Katz, a veteran print and broadcast journalist who writes extensively about new media, finds the old and new culture at odds everywhere.

Conservatives and fundamentalists detect Satan in rock lyrics and explicit videos. Boomer parents fear ugly rap, violent computer games and online porn. Traditional journalists "cling to the cliff with stiffening fingers," beset by competition from "nerds with bulletin boards..brash filmmakers..tabloid and reality shows..the World Wide Web" and more.

Katz argues vigorously that "the media don't render our culture smart or dumb, civilized or raucous, peaceful or violent. They mirror the state of the existing culture."

This may be true, but he fails to completely convince, partly because he doesn't address the cumulative impact our supermediated culture must be having. He glibly glosses over the dangers of media violence ("we know what's killing young people, and it isn't lyrics, cartoons or computers") and ducks a key question: What should be the moral responsibility of the entertainment industry?

But Katz does offer an impressive and thoughtful diagnosis of old-media stodginess, and presents positive suggestions for change. Newspapers should "stop attacking the culture and technology that are central" to young people's lives; stress investigation, analysis and context; deepen coverage of social issues and popular culture; remake themselves creatively and graphically; and embrace the profound new world of interactivity.

Drawing on the philosophy of John Locke ("He believed in the moral education of children, rather than the arbitrary imposition of rules") and the spirit of Thomas Paine ("the Internet is, in many ways, the embodiment" of the "ferociously spirited press of the late 1700s"), Katz envisions an appealing blend of old and new media, "traditional journalism radically rearranged."

It is a virtuous vision. The question is whether we can make it reality. l



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