As usual, the nineteenth century saw this coming. Tocqueville and Nietzsche, among many others, long ago predicted that an advanced democratic culture would entail a flattening of the spiritual landscape, discouraging the development of truly outstanding individuals who are willing and able to think and feel for themselves. Personal judgments, they saw, would increasingly be handed over to the masses. Neither thinker, of course, could have predicted precisely the forms that this flattening would take in the age of Facebook.
Jon Stewart is, let us say, neither the Nietzsche nor the Toqueville of the twenty-first century. He does, however, possess over those thinkers the advantage of contemporaneity. On February 28 he devoted a segment of The Daily Show to one more contemporary instance of democratic flattening, the recent dumbing down of CNN—or, one could say, its democratizing down. The wide mania for audience participation has apparently inspired the directors of CNN not just to pander to Joe and Jane Six Pack, but to give them a share of direct editorial control. Stewart played a painful montage of frivolous new CNN features, including two regular segments that amount to playing, and sort of commenting on, amusing YouTube videos.
The most damaging part of Stewart’s indictment, however, involved a feature CNN is calling “Choose the News” in which the network plays very brief teasers for three different news stories, and invites viewers to vote, via text message, on which stories CNN should cover later in the hour. The three stories on the voting block concerned, respectively, outrage over plans for a government takeover of womens’ shelters in Afghanistan (including photos of badly bruised female limbs and torsos), the significance of the Abu Dhabi arms bazaar (which is “the largest weapons show in the Middle East and Africa”) and a segment on homeless female veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Stewart pointed out, all three of these seem “kind of important.”
It doesn’t require an overweening respect for the news editors at CNN to think that a trained, experienced journalist, who has seen the stories in question, might be better qualified than me to decide which of these stories deserves airtime (as if airtime is so scarce in our 24 hour news cycle). This is simply a new level of pandering. CNN is, of course, no stranger to giving the people what they want. “Choose the News” is a tacit, and astute, recognition that what the people want now is to believe that they are the experts. So that is precisely what CNN—“The Most Trusted Name in News”—is willing to telling them. In the process the journalists at CNN abdicate their responsibility to furrow their brows and make hard, smart editorial judgments. Neither Nietzsche nor Tocqueville would be surprised. This is the trajectory that they mapped out, in imprecise terms, more than a century ago.
I’ll try to take a deep breath. Charmed (and convinced) as I am by jeremiads about the spiritual vapidity of contemporary America, it’s important to acknowledge now and then that contemporary America, with all the “Choose the News” silliness that we continually foist on ourselves, is not exactly a Huxleyan dystopia. At least not yet. And pace extreme anti-capitalists like Ward Churchill, the custodians of corporate America are not “little Eichmanns.” That’s going too far. But the imperatives to “keep the shareholders happy”, and to “give the people what they want” (so often indistinguishable) are indeed the free society’s version of “just following orders”, releasing powerful individuals from the heavy burdens of judgment. Those few individuals who do take it upon themselves to help the curious citizen think well about his world – intellectuals, writers, journalists, say—will have to spend an ever-increasing amount of energy resisting the centripetal force of an ever more democratized culture.