Welcome To The Internet, David Brooks!

Aug 13, 2013

This past weekend's Sunday shows were their typical wealth of human wreckage, what with all this stuff that happened, and also this stuff, as well as all of this. But one minor part of the day that probably deserves some more attention was the "Meet the Press" panel on The Washington Post's sale to Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, and David Brooks' ongoing personal story of coming to terms with the Internet's existence.

A lot of the conversation -- which took place among host David Gregory, New York Times columnist Brooks, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, NPR political analyst Ted Koppel, and former Postie-turned-editor of AllThingsD.com Kara Swisher -- concerned itself with a "The Times They Are A-Changing" look at Bezos' acquisition.

Ignatius described the past week as one that went from "painful" -- in the sense that the Graham family's sun was setting at the paper -- to a more enthusiastic conclusion. "By the end of the week," Ignatius said, "people were thinking, 'How do we go on the offensive? How does this dynamic new owner take us into a space where we're going to be more exciting?'" Koppel agreed, noting that Bezos was bringing "$25 billion to the table" and with it the ability to "harness the technology" of the web and mobile Internet, something that other people, "the Grahams among them, have not been able to do."

And then Brooks dusted off what amounted to a "bloggers that live in their parents' basements" joke:

BROOKS: Yeah, I think the audience has changed online. I think there's been a return to authority. You know, I used to read blogs, and you'd kind of be reading something interesting, and then the blogger would write, "Well, I've got to quit now. I'm going off to junior high." I realized I'd been reading a 12-year-old.

But I think there has been a return away from some of that toward, whether it's online or in print, a return to quality. People who actually make the calls, who are not speculating, who are reporting. And I think there's been a return to that sort of stuff.

And so I'm a little more of the belief that the old media is going to continue. Look at ebooks; they've hit a plateau. Look at online; it's hitting a plateau, I think. And so I think we're going to be stunned by how much of the old media, whether it's delivered online or not, is going to be around, as the audience returns to authority.

I'm not sure what Brooks is talking about exactly. It seems that he felt somehow rooked that he was momentarily interested in what a junior high schooler had to say and that once he found out the blogger's age and societal status, whatever had attracted his sincere interest was disqualified because the blogger in question lacked "authority."

Swisher, whose presence on the panel doesn't seem to rate a mention at the top of NBC News' transcript, thankfully went on to argue Brooks into a corner:

KARA SWISHER: You're using terms, "old media." Why are you doing that anymore? I mean, it's kind of like -- is it because you're old or whatever? But that's not the case.

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not that old.

KARA SWISHER: No, I know that. I'm also old. But the fact of the matter is, the fact that you're using terms "old media" and "new media," it's changed completely. For example, we have a staff of six people covering tech. Very small, lean staff. We pay our reporters very well. We broke a lot of the major news stories when every other bureau has larger [numbers of] people. It's not a function of cost; it's not necessarily a function of having this old institution. It's a function of embracing these tools and doing the same thing.


KARA SWISHER: I think people are just resistant to the change, and they have to say "blogs" as if it's an insult. They have to, like, separate them. And they're all part of a living, breathing news organization that has to use these tools. It's like arguing against printing presses. You know, monks arguing against Gutenberg. I just don't understand why --

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I'm not sure we're disagreeing. I would say when you look at projections of the future, go back, look at how people predicted the future, they always underestimated the extent of technological change. They always overestimated a sense of behavioral change. So the technology's going to change, but what people want to read is going to be basically the same --

KARA SWISHER: But the consumers are way ahead of you.

Not only are the consumers way ahead of Brooks, but they are pushing many of those formerly young and independent bloggers into the dominant media space. Do I even need to mention a few names? Ezra Klein was a formerly young political blogger who hung out a shingle online and is now a dominant voice at The Washington Post. Nate Silver parlayed a sideline interest in baseball metrics and Bayesian analysis into a traffic-generating New York Times blog and from there a major deal with ESPN and ABC News.

The way Brooks talks about the "audience" (as if he is even aware of what it is and what it's doing), it's as if it just spent a long holiday in the blogosphere and, having enjoyed that Rumspringa, is now "returning" home to "authority." But there's no return. The audience decided a long time ago that people like Nate Silver had earned themselves the distinction of being authoritative.

True, it's not like Klein and Silver were in middle school when they started out. Tavi Gevinson was, however, and she now runs RookieMag.com, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Of course, Brooks is by no means the worst in dealing with the dominance of digital media (as proof of his adaptability, let me remind you that he and Gail Collins used to do a very fun series of conversational blog posts for The New York Times). Perhaps the most desperate Luddite voice in the wilderness is Post columnist Robert Samuelson, who has gone from wishing for the abolition of the Internet in its entirety to announcing that he is stockpiling typewriters, presumably because in the post-apocalyptic world, mankind will require a steady reserve of food, medicine and Robert Samuelson columns to survive.

Jonathan Chait points out an irony: Samuelson has devoted a goodly share of his attention to writing about how the steel industry's "workers and management are lazy and reactive, railing against necessary change, and unworthy of help." Over and over and over again.

Samuelson has spent 30 years lecturing Americans threatened by competition that they should suck it up. Only now, in the twilight of his career, does he see himself among them, and his response to this misfortune -- a still-theoretical threat to his comfortable sinecure -- is to wish the source of that competition out of existence.

So, comparatively speaking, Brooks' dated jokes about bloggers are actually fairly refreshing. Nevertheless, this all reminds me of a funny thing that happened at Monday night's "Buzzfeed Brews" interview between BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and tragic figure-turned-New York City mayoral candidate-turned-farcical figure Anthony Weiner, as related by The New Republic's Marc Tracy:

The night's most memorable moment came early on, when Weiner, who apparently had done his own oppo, chided Smith: "You can do this or show videos of cats, whatever it is you do at BuzzFeed." An "oooooh" erupted from the otherwise mostly silent crowd. Weiner was understandably exasperated -- we were several minutes into the interview and the subject matter remained firmly on the scandal side (such that Smith, sensing Weiner's rage, had just promised, "I'm going to start asking you about Stop and Frisk soon"). But still, in August 2013, when you come at BuzzFeed with "cat videos," you've already lost.

I wonder what depresses Brooks more: the fact that he shares the same tired opinion of the Internet media and its practitioners as Anthony Weiner, or the fact that in the end, he -- like Weiner -- needs the BuzzFeeds of the world more than they need him?

Brooks, referring to a group of Spanish concertgoers at a Bruce Springsteen gig, once wrote:

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, "I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!"

Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?

It was a real return to authority, I guess. People on the Internet wrote about his piece, though, ensuring that it would get lots of traffic.

So, you're welcome, David.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

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