THE SICKNESS OF SOCIETY can be measured by the corruption of its words. If what is written is commercially compromised, pedestrian, pretentiously avant-garde, sensational, falsely "objective," full of prurient excitements, or given to half-truths in its ambitious and professional urge to suit popular taste, then the vigor and sanity of a people's intellectual life is indicted. No man or woman, still less a nation of millions, can escape the revealing honesty of personal utterance. So America, a land more than any other of printed words and raised voices, speaks a persistent, accusing dialogue with itself at every newsstand, bookstore, porn arcade and pamphleteer's table.
There has always been bad writing in this country, sensational and self-indulgent writing, full of topical delusions and crudities, though sometimes it has been valuable as a tonic and revelation to the best writers. Still, why is there in America today the oppressive sense that the art of writing has degenerated, slackened, been standardized and cheapened? The question has been voiced before, and it has been valid before, but there is a special urgency in it today.
Any publisher can testify to the enormous numbers of books now sent to press, and the astronomical royalties or fees authors can receive--both phenomena unparalleled in the past even granting the natural, numerical increase in all the things of modern life. A flood of writing pours in from the publishing houses, but no corresponding rise in quality has occurred, no onslaught of genius. We do not even feel that in the great number of words and subjects--all that is 'said'--there is more truly 'revealed.' A disheartening monotony pervades the fresh editions of criticism, the flashy or clever works of fiction, the slim volumes of poetry, the exposes, the tracts of pop culture, etc. The majority of these bear no stamp of true originality, and seem destined for tired and dated shelf space, intellectual curiosities to some future generation.
AND WHY this frenetic activity of critics, intent on instantly gauging the impact of every book, committing it to or excising it from the pages of literary history? If every new work which has been hailed or advertised in recent years as a 'new masterpiece,' an 'enduring monument' were collected, we would be in the midst of an extraordinary renaissance. Obviously this great literary revival has escaped general notice. But here again, within the beaten track of professional criticism, there is a pervasive sense of monotony, as if all the commentary masks a deeper literary ill health in America, and is an attempt to make significant and permanent writing which is inevitably transient.
In conjunction with the televised media, the reporting press has also grown tremendously. The last decades have seen not a profusion of newspapers, like the profusion of "saleable" books, but rather the development of a group of influential publications with huge circulations. Large urban dailies, Time, Newsweek, and a number of lesser national magazines dominate public expression. In the last 50 years, the number of both large and small circulation newspapers has declined precipitously, and with it a broad range of viewpoints and verbal freedom. The principle of a partisan, local, fractious, extremely diverse and decentralized press--a principle which survived from the first scurrilous debate on Federalism, through the Civil War, and into the 20th Century--has largely ceased to exist. Taking up the slack from the decline in newspapers, the nationally prominent magazines appeal to large readerships by cultivating only very vague political inclinations. Today we tend to think of the press's past partisanship in its worst aspects--sensationalism and news demagoguery--but fundamentally this was reflective of a healthy, democratic impulse. In any case, yellow journalism has not left us--it has only gone underground, and is handled more subtly. In short, though possessing immense power and unprecedented popular diffusion, the press is losing its healthy diversity, its latitude, its freedom of expression in the truest sense of the phrase.
THE OVERRIDING CAUSE of both the commercial explosion of books and the constriction of a vigorous press (and indeed, the force which is slowly sapping us of many of our liberties) is the much-cliched, yet truly invidious spirit of big business. In the past, the average newspaper or magazine did not share the considerations foremost in the thinking of a large corporation. A publication was obliged to consider sales and profits for purposes of economic viability, so that it might continue to publish and prosper in more than financial aims. The desire to increase profit for profit's sake, to expand, to consolidate, to dominate in a corporate fashion was basically alien to the press and its historical function of news dissemination. It is a subtle and very essential distinction between the press conceived as a vital political institution, and as one money-making enterprise among many.
With the rise of the major newspaper chains, the press followed the rest of America into the embrace of large corporate organization. Today The New York Times and The Washington Post are among the nation's 250 largest corporations, with interests going beyond the publications. Time is part of the even larger Time-Life Inc., a publishing empire of international proportions. In each case, the company's financial viability rests on the sum profitability of its enterprises, not simply the relative success, failure, or intrinsic merit of the publication. The company naturally comes to view its publication in more profit-oriented terms, to the detriment of editorial standards. The extent to which commercial motives influence contents varies from publication to publication. A prime offender is Time, once devoted to politics and the arts, which over the years has reserved more and more space to articles on life-style, personalities, commercial glamour and sexual mores--all of which sell magazines. It is hard to think of the writing in Time as much more than a mass product, so thoroughly has it been standardized and diluted by its editorial grist mill. Even The New York Times has initiated Living, Arts and Weekend sections to bolster sales, and regularly carries a profitable column by Mobil on its Op-Ed page.
The same consideration of sales has come to predominate in publishing, with more books than ever printed with an eye to large and quick profits, and not content. What Alexis De Tocqueville called "the trading spirit in literature" has long existed in American democracy, but it now seems rampant. The special distinction and social value the author had claimed since the times when books were more precious has disappeared, in this surfeit of profitable words. Writing has become still more a trade and less an art. But these changes are only the obvious consequences of subordinating the editorial room, or literary content, to commercial ends. The spirit of corporate profit has influenced what is printed in a more profound way; and it is symbolic of how pervasive this hidden influence is that no one takes notice of it, let alone contests it as corrupting.
In the press, the most dangerous effect of corporate domination has been the pretense of objectivity. The belief in an "objective," unbiased, impartial press is radically wrong. In even the most straight-forward reporting there is always a subtle slant, or room for interpretation, and a newspaper will betray its inclinations in a thousand small ways. We hear that the press must be "objective," because it is "powerful" and can influence "partisan" politics. But the press has never lacked power and political influence; only now power is concentrated and therefore more formidable. What the call for "objectivity" boils down to is the call for moderation. When the press rocks the "middle" boat, it is not "objective." The radical is not "objective;" the reactionary is not "objective." Increasingly the "objective" press becomes more centrist, mainstream, homogenized and consensus-bound. And it is a strange coincidence indeed that this objectivity has coincided with the rise of corporate power in the press.
Certainly the framers of the Constitution did not intend, or even believe, that the press should be objective. They saw the health, the honesty, even the justice of society in the process of the system, in the diverse, opinionated contention of viewpoints--radical, reactionary, moderate--not in some fictive principle of objectivity. But the corporate spirit runs counter to broad freedom of thought and individual creativity; in its organization and marketing, its urge is to standardize, to cheapen, to impersonalize. And to the extent the principles of big business enter the press, this commercial spirit will prevail, as it has with all mass products.
VERY FEW PEOPLE in this country are strictly middle-of-the-road, mainstream, or centrist. We are a land of independent thinkers, dissenters, regionalists, and everyone has a belief or two out of line with the political mean. When the press was more diverse, it catered to the vigorous variety of outlooks, and people felt that in an intangible way the newspaper or magazine of their choice 'belonged' to them. Now the press is viewed as dominating and monolithic, a part of a power triad with government and industry. Large sections of the population, the majority even--from moral conservatives to radical reformers--feel alienated by a liberal, mildly progressive press which treats them implicitly as variations from some "truthful" consensus. And though the profusion of books is democratic in the extreme, and there is no lack of diverse and freely expressed opinions, this abundance is infected with the same corrupting and mediocre commercial spirit that has sapped the vigor and spiritual freedom of the press.
So the spirit of unbridled profit which needlessly spoils the quality of our natural environment--wastes the countryside, fouls the waters, blights the cities--affects no less the quality of our spiritual life, in all that is written. The illness of the land speaks everyday in the illness of its words. America is no better than what it writes. And at least one famous American meant this when he said, "All I know is what I see in the papers."