Getting Serious  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   November 2001

Getting Serious   

Substance is back in vogue in the culture and in the news media.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Graydon Carter backed off.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the high-profile editor of Vanity Fair, that ad-bloated, Proust-size amalgam of celebrity profiles and excellent long-form journalism, declared that the age of irony was over. As days passed, he moved away from the comment. What he really said, he insisted, was that the age of ironing was over.

Well, irony has been around for a long time, and no doubt it's too soon to write off the venerable literary device completely. But Carter was onto something.

The notion that "everything has changed" has become an instant cliché. But the times we live in now do feel a lot different than the ones from which we just emerged.

The period between the end of the Cold War and September 11 was an anomaly. After the decades-long nuclear-age standoff with godless communism, the United States seemed to face no external threat. As the millennium neared, the country enjoyed great and seemingly endless prosperity. The Internet boom created the notion that instant riches were there for the taking. "No worries" was the appropriate motto.

It was also a time that seemed utterly bereft of seriousness. The public was beguiled by an endless sequence of media circuses--topped by the Ringling Brothers edition, O.J.--then by the awful advent of "reality TV." Even the era's great political controversy, in which a president was impeached, was not about affairs of state but affairs of infinite tawdriness.

The perfect symbol for it all was Seinfeld and his friends, a group of people for whom the phrase "not enough to worry about" would have had to be created if it hadn't existed already.

Not surprisingly, the news media reflected the zeitgeist. The nightly news was dumbed down and was eclipsed by news-entertainment hybrids, the morning shows and television newsmagazines. Newspapers turned to lifestyle news, stories that were more "relevant" to readers. Except at the top national papers, government news was out of fashion and foreign news damn near invisible.

Too widely overlooked in the profit-soaked climate was the role of the news media in a democratic society, the obligation to provide readers and viewers with enough information and perspective and context to make intelligent decisions about public life.

AJR senior writer Susan Paterno writes in this issue about the yawns that greeted the release of a major report warning that the United States government was seriously unprepared for dealing with terrorism (see page 24). Stepping back, it seems amazing that a high-level commission's alarmed take on such a perilous issue could be so roundly ignored. But more than an indictment of specific people's news judgment, the languid response is a reflection of an era.

Since the attack, of course, the Hart-Rudman commission findings have been widely circulated. And the tenor of news coverage in general has changed. Once again, seriousness is in vogue.

News organizations, after their impressive performances covering the initial horror, have juggled the multifaceted repercussions of September 11: the investigation, the war in Afghanistan, the scary anthrax assaults.

Our best newspaper, the New York Times, has been simply stunning, printing an unbelievable amount of high-quality copy. But it's hardly been alone in going full-throttle for a long stretch on a supremely challenging mission.

Here's hoping that the commitment to substance endures after the current crisis ebbs.

At AJR's deadline, the anthrax outbreak remains murky. No one knows who or what is behind it. But one thing is clear: The news media are a target. Killing, or persecuting, the messenger is a common phenomenon in the world's more repressive outposts. And foreign-language journalists have been victimized in the United States as well. But an offensive against our major news organizations is something new altogether.

Another unwelcome sign of the end of America's innocence.

Lori Robertson is moving up the AJR masthead.

For the past three-and-a-half years, Lori has served as AJR's assistant managing editor. She's done a superb job, honchoing the front of the book, emerging as our queen of style and somehow finding time to write outstanding feature story after outstanding feature story (like the one on page 40).

Lori's got it all--brains, talent, energy, verve and a work ethic that won't quit. So it's with great excitement that we've named her managing editor, a promotion that's richly deserved.

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