At least one historian has noted that democracy is inherently inflationary. The phenomenon of inflation is not restricted to money and finance. Too much of anything reduces the value of that thing, and others with it. Political inflation, or extreme democracy, degrades the political system, as well as the economy it is tempted to inflate for its own short-term advantage. Inflated, or mass, production lowers standards of production and produces inferior goods. Mass culture degrades thought and feeling to their lowest common denominator. And contemporary culture is, more than anything, the creation of the modern system of mass communications sustained by the democratic distribution of the personal computer, and the internet by which the computer is connected to the world.
Bad money, as the saying goes, drives out good. Bad money means cheap money—money in too great quantities. The classical-liberal maxim is that, in the marketplace of ideas, good ideas will prevail in the end over bad ones. But liberals have never claimed that inflation of the supply of ideas could operate to the same effect as inflation in the money supply does. Indeed, the contrary is true: Liberalism has always encouraged what it calls the free exchange of ideas as an unqualified good, on the assumption that the more widespread the exchange and the more numerous the bandied ideas, irrespective of their worth, the better. Thus liberalism’s historically unqualified support of the popular press, from the 18th century down to the present time.
The popular press has been inseparable from what we call self-government, but it is far from being a demonstrable fact that it has helped self-government, or indeed government of any kind at all, along. Having begun life as a partisan sheet, it has remained biased ever since—lying, obfuscatory, fundamentally dishonest. With the advent of the British tabloid and the Hearst papers around the turn of the 20th century, journalism added to these qualities its lurid and sensationalist ones. Following the Great War, journalism—a trade, as Mencken argued, wonderfully suited to third-rate minds—further degraded itself by embracing the conviction, as Walter Lippmann observed in 1920, that its true mission was not to report but to instruct, “not to print news but to save civilization.” The presentation of facts simply as facts, editors and writers reasoned, cannot accomplish this exalted goal. To do that, facts need to presented according to those rhetorical patterns of thought we call opinions, patterns pointed in some particular direction with the intention of convincing an imagined jury. And who is that jury? “Everybody,” Lippmann explained,
who creates public sentiment—chattering gossips, unscrupulous liars, congenital liars, feeble-minded people, prostitute minds, corrupting agents. To this jury any testimony is submitted, is submitted in any form, by any anonymous person, with no test of reliability, no test of credibility, and no penalty for perjury.
So much for the virtues of the press. What would Walter Lippmann have to say about the world-wide web, which he did not live to see?
My guess is that he would have nothing further to add to the above indictment—except, perhaps, one thing. The web has taken the old popular journalism and transformed it into participatory journalism, which indeed was the next logical step forward in the progress of communicative democracy.
The web, of course, entails a great deal more than the invention of a new journalistic form. It serves as an international encyclopedia and dictionary; an almost inexhaustible fact-checking department; a global map, international weather service, and traveler’s guide to every place on earth; an inexhaustible how-to manual; a world shopping mall and mail-order department; and an international electronic postal system, among other innumerable things. But I am concerned here with the web as a medium of public discourse of the sort that was once exclusively available through printed material: newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, whose electronic equivalents are websites, webzines, and personal blogs.
The most obvious characteristic of web journalism is that it places writer and reader, producer and consumer, on an equal authoritative footing. The reader assumes he knows as much about the subject addressed as the writer does, and is therefore equally qualified and entitled to assert with confidence his own opinion on that subject, whether in agreement with the author’s or not. The comment button is the absolute guarantor of that equality. Posting a rejoinder to an online article is hardly comparable to sending a letter to a newspaper editor, which may or may not be printed, according to the discretion of the correspondence editor, who decides as he sees fit. Moreover, the process of comment and countercomment narrows the distance between the two parties in a way that even the seemingly endless chains of punch-counterpunch correspondence the Times of London was once famous for never could; while the fact that additional comments can be posted to the same article creates a situation in which many people are “speaking” at once, thus confusing the issue as if during a debate on a political talk show. In the ensuing chaos the “facts” at issue, assuming any were offered in the first place, are buried under that pile-on of conflicting opinion that internet writing exalts over everything else, authority especially.
The proliferation in boundless cyberspace of websites, webzines, blogs, and so forth certainly obscures and distracts from those fora whose contributors know what they are talking about, and can express what they know well and clearly. However, this objection holds for hard print publication as well, where sheer volume also buries quality under piles of refuse like city dumps. But it is not quantity alone that drives out quality on the web. It is the absence of some sort of governing authorities competent to exercise that very undemocratic function called discrimination.
Many websites, it is true, are operated, edited, and written by professional journalists, some of whom have a background in print magazines and newspapers. They are vastly outnumbered, however, by those that are not. Moreover, competent editors are hindered in their work by the inadequate supply of competent writers, young writers especially who learned to write on the computer, which makes composition too easy—or rather, seem so. The simple fact of viewing crisp, cleanly typed, and corrected lines on the screen encourages people who never could be, or else are not yet, writers to regard themselves as professionals. Composition by computer conceals the writer’s sloppiness, stylistic and mental, from himself, thus encouraging him in his bad habits; while immediate or overnight posting provides him with an instant gratification that is dangerous to his morale. Young writers, partly because they are comfortable with electronics, and partly because it is easier to make a start in the electronic media than in the press, are all over the web. I have yet, however, to discover a writer lacking a track record in print who could produce an article, or even a short book review, acceptable for publication in a print journal. As a result, competent webzine editors, hard put to find copy of quality, have lowered their standards for copyediting and rewriting. And they are not encouraged to maintain those standards by the discovery that the vast majority of online readers is indifferent and even hostile to correct and formal language, which strikes them as foreign or snooty—the opposite of the democratic style they expect. In addition, the temptation to vulgarize the material in order to attract the large potential audience they feel their sites deserve is often irresistible.
The obvious objection to the idea of establishing authority over the journalistic and other intellectually serious parts of the web is that, since the 1960’s, the print media have been dominated by revolutionary ideologues and corporate philistines lacking seriousness, learning, discrimination, and taste. For half a century, some of the world’s best authors have been denied contracts by the most reputable publishing houses, and space in the pages of the most distinguished periodicals and newspapers, while artistic and political hacks have been rewarded with both. In this context, the web might seem to offer liberation from the near-absolute authority of print into the wide-open freedom of cyberspace. Who but a fool, or a tool of the ancien régime, would wish to impose these princes of narrow intellectual and artistic absolutism on the wild and woolly frontier of the web, where writers are free to seek their fortunes in defiance of all the rules and strictures of Huck Finn’s despised civilization?
Yet I cannot find my way around the conviction that writing, for the web as for print publication, requires standards, and that standards require the existence of an authority that both sets and maintains them. Many are called, but few are chosen. That, at least, is how it used to be. Anyone can call himself a writer—and so, of course, a great many people do. Indeed, it seems to be almost a qualification for membership in the middle class either to fancy oneself a writer, or to think one could be a writer, or to have considered oneself at some time in one’s life a writer. It is an integral part of the modern bohemian-bourgeois mystique. Thirty years ago, when he was still a struggling artist known only to a small coterie, Cormac McCarthy was asked at a party if he were a published writer. His absolutely appropriate answer was that he wouldn’t call himself a writer if he weren’t a published one. I think of this anecdote every time I meet some young person who introduces himself as a writer, confiding that he plans to self-publish his first novel by means of his PC and the internet. But the word writer is a term that properly has social and professional implications, not personal ones merely. A writer is not simply someone who “writes,” or imagines himself writing, but a person whom other people recognize as a writer in recognition of a history of literary accomplishment measurable by people competent to judge it. And that accomplishment should be a professionally published one. The personal computer, the web, and the self-publishing process they make possible fly in the face of this unpleasant truth.
It is possible, maybe even probable, that the literary web is inherently incapable of regulation by authority of any kind. If that is so, the web is worthless except to communicate raw data—much or most of which, lacking verification by competent evaluators, are insufficiently reliable to be accepted as facts. When one considers the current transmigration of literature from the printed word to the electronic one, the fact seems to have calamitous implications for the future of civilization.