Book Club On The Media And More
Ron DeSantis talks today, we talk Neil Postman tomorrow
I don’t want to pre-write opinions about tonight’s Ron DeSantis announcement because there’s so many different ways it could go down. It could be a masterful new media decision! It could be a total disaster! It could be something quickly forgotten that we aren’t talking about after Memorial Day. (Third seems likeliest to me.) One thing that I do think: Ron DeSantis should talk about a certain someone who another certain someone can’t talk about tonight:
There’s an opportunity here for DeSantis to take a stand that would potentially send ripples through the Twitter audience, even if it isn’t something that will be front of mind for many voters: commit that as president, he would release any and all information about Jeffrey Epstein — not just the client list, but what the government knows about his connections and relationships with the powerful. Taking such a stand would do more than just ruffle feathers — it would demonstrate how much DeSantis is an outsider committed to draining the swamp, and not someone beholden to the jet-set elites. Americans deserve to know the truth.
But anyhow — I’m writing a brief edition today to remind you to please become a paying subscriber, because tomorrow we’re going to have the post-baby (I’m taking her to her doctor’s appointment in 15 minutes) relaunch of our monthly book club! We’ll be on Zoom from 8 PM-9:30 PM Eastern to discuss Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves To Death, which I’ve been sharing quotes from for the past several weeks. It’s a prescient book with so much to say about society today, amazing given that it was initially written about what television would do to us. I’ll send out a link to paying subscribers tomorrow before the conversation begins.
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In the meantime, and related to the topic, you can read my latest magazine piece from The Spectator on the downfall of the clickbait model of journalism:
Their declared intention was to break the internet. In November 2014, the winter issue of Paper magazine, a stalwart of the New York arts and music scene for thirty years, featured an image immediately declared iconic by social media: Kim Kardashian, her neck wrapped in pearls, popping a Champagne cork and catching the bubbly white stream that jets over her head in the coupe glass propped on her prominent derrière. And that was just the cover — the internet quickly shared photographer Jean-Paul Goude’s more pornographic images of an oiled-up Kardashian stripping out of her black evening gown to show off her famous buttocks, before going full frontal with a slightly unnerving smile.
The gambit worked to the tune of 16 million views for Paper in a single week. The image became an oft-parodied internet meme. It was the basis for an SNL sketch and soon afterwards Kim’s then-husband, Kanye West, had to take a mental-health break. The conversation was successfully dominated. “For our winter issue, we gave ourselves one assignment: Break The Internet,” the editors of Paper wrote. “There is no other person that we can think of who is up to the task than one Kim Kardashian West. A pop culture fascination able to generate headlines just by leaving her house, Kim is what makes the web tick.” And they were right.
Less than a decade later, Paper shut down, firing its entire editorial staff in early 2023. Amanda Fortini, now a writing fellow at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, piped up on Twitter to note its passing: “RIP Paper Magazine. I wrote the Kim Kardashian ‘Break the Internet’ story for them, the one that accompanied the infamous photos. Or as I refer to it: the story that 16 million people clicked on and almost no one actually read.”
The Paper layoffs are a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Over the past several months, media companies have gone through a great unspooling, a long overdue series of layoffs and closures that have seen the once-mighty laid low. BuzzFeed News, once the most dominant force in new media, when fledgling journalist Andrew Kaczynski broke story after story embarrassing the Mitt Romney campaign, is no more.
VICE, the hip, video-heavy outlet, is unspooling in rapid fashion. CNN gutted their entire Headline News network, as well as multiple prominent hosts and commentators. Insider and NPR both laid off 10 percent of their workforce. The Washington Post cut staff thanks to dwindling revenues. Vox Media, the publisher of New York magazine, SB Nation, Vulture, the Verge and other sites, has cut hundreds of jobs. Disney and ABC News cut thousands, prompting political data-egghead Nate Silver to say he’ll be parting from his FiveThirtyEight website when his contract is up.
There’s also been chaos around the preferred platform of nearly every journo. The infamous “blue check” mafia of Twitter addicts has been infuriated by the purchase of the social media site by contrarian rocket enthusiast Elon Musk, who seems focused on answering the scientific question “what if a megabillionaire was also a giant troll?” Musk has wreaked havoc on the site from the perspective of those in the media who used it to self-promote, virtue-signal and find new people to fuck or fuck with, all while rejecting the journalist-NGO industrial complex of censorship most of the former blue checks believe essential to saving democracy.
The overall picture is of an industry in chaos, uncertain about economic forces and ad revenues, and of publications increasingly competing not just with each other, but in a new media landscape that drives people away from the internet’s once-thriving model: clickbait-focused entities that could drive attention, swinging for the fences on a headline, and going viral consistently enough to keep the lights on and the executives content.
“Just a few years ago, they all thought they were on a rocket ship,” Howard Kurtz, a longtime media analyst and now host of Fox News’s MediaBuzz, told me. “But it started breaking apart in midair, and nobody knew what to do to keep it from blowing up entirely.”
The rest is here — I hope you’ll read and share.
Rise of the Encampment State
Ask the average Californian his take on homelessness, and he’ll say that it’s gotten much worse. Back in the early 2000s, a visitor to Los Angeles’s Skid Row or San Francisco’s Tenderloin would have witnessed scenes of misery that seemed scarcely capable of further deterioration. Intense reaction against street conditions back then gave rise, in many California cities, to campaigns to end homelessness, prompting billions in new spending. But no California city ended homelessness; the average Californian’s impression is correct. According to the best data available, homelessness in California grew during the 2010s and is still growing.
It has also spread. Governments once aspired to contain homelessness-related disorder within the boundaries of forlorn neighborhoods like Skid Row and the Tenderloin. But containment strategies are now just as discredited as the goal of ending homelessness. Tents are everywhere: the suburbs, the beaches, riverbeds, beneath overpasses, urban parks, median strips, nature preserves, and sidewalks surrounding City Halls. The crisis’s dispersion has caused regional tensions, with neighboring communities trading accusations of dumping their homelessness problems on one another. To sort out inter-municipal disputes, and those between city and county governments, state government has had to step in. Since taking office in 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom has often identified homelessness as his top priority—another measure of the issue’s magnitude. Most states view homelessness as a local problem.
Public concern has intensified in response to the gruesome details that give twenty-first- century homelessness such a menacing character and that give California such a dystopian reputation in connection with it. In San Diego from 2016 to 2018, a homeless-encampment-related outbreak of hepatitis A infected hundreds, 20 fatally. In the early months of Covid-19, Los Angeles contracted with a portable restroom company to facilitate better hygiene among the street population. One employee of that firm was impaled in the hand by a syringe when cleaning out a handwashing station near a needle exchange. In April 2021, a dog was burned alive in Venice by a fire likely set by a member of that community’s unsheltered population. In January 2022, a dog attacked a security guard at the San Francisco Public Library when the guard tried to use Narcan to revive the dog’s owner, who had overdosed. This past December, a San Francisco toddler overdosed on fentanyl, after coming into contact with it while playing in a park. A June 2018 column in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Homeless Camp Pushes SF Neighborhood to the Edge” related how a two-and-a-half-year-old had “invented a game called ‘jumping over the poop’” and that “[a]nother kid across the street collected syringe caps and floated them down the stream of dirty gutter water for fun.”
Social media have been crucial in advancing progressive causes such as Black Lives Matter, but they have pushed in the opposite direction with homelessness. The notion that homeless Californians are just down-on-their-luck cases has been undermined by viral videos such as Michael Shellenberger’s interviews with street addicts. In one, posted in February 2022, “Ben” reckoned that less than 10 percent of San Francisco’s street homeless are from the city originally and that the majority have an addiction, and he explained how he supports his own habit through petty crime. A video posted on July 8, 2022, by a San Francisco–based Twitter user showed schoolchildren exiting a bus in the city’s South of Market neighborhood into what looked like a junkie zombie apocalypse. Californians understand that rents in their state are punishingly expensive and that some people who might have found housing elsewhere have wound up living on the street here. But why do they have to live on the street like that?
Homelessness hardens the heart. In a crisis jurisdiction, one cannot use streets and sidewalks without passing by—and thus ignoring—the obvious suffering of one’s fellow man. But the homelessness story in California today is not one of neglect. Policymakers have been trying to help, but their programs have yet to make much headway.
Building Back Red California
Few developments in the modern history of American politics have been as consequential as the transformation of Ronald Reagan’s red California into the blue California of Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom. The fall of red California not only changed the balance of power in American electoral politics. It also set off a convulsion in the Republican Party, helping turn the optimistic progressive conservatives of the Reagan era into the embittered culture warriors of more recent years.
Until the Depression, California was a solidly Republican state. Between the Civil War and 1932, Democrats only rarely carried the state, winning a majority of its electoral votes in 1880 and 1892, and winning by just over 3,000 votes in 1916. It was one of six states that voted for Teddy Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. From 1932 to 1948, it swung into the Democratic column, giving Franklin Roosevelt a 67% popular vote victory in 1936. But Harry Truman eked out a narrow victory by only half a percent when he won California in 1948, and from 1952 through 1988 California was back in the Republican fold, defecting only in the 1964 Democratic landslide. Since then, the state has cast its electoral votes for the Democratic candidate in every election, and while no modern candidate has matched Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 total, the Democratic candidate has won more than 60% of California’s popular vote in every presidential election since 2008.
Reagan’s brand of sunny conservatism has since been obliterated in the state. Now among the bluest of blue states, California politics are better known today for incubating ever more elaborate forms of wokeness and identity politics. California’s history of producing truly constructive mainstream political and social movements and ideas going back to the 19th century is all but forgotten. In today’s politics, “Made in California” mostly means far-left social experiments or angry but futile Republican critiques.
Whatever one thinks about Donald Trump and his war with the old Republican establishment, the difference between the “Morning in America” Republicans of Reagan’s time and the MAGA Republicans of today is clear. Reagan Republicans believed that America could do anything it set its mind to accomplish. Today’s Republicans are more likely to see America as fighting a desperate rear-guard battle to survive. The decline and fall of red California had a lot to do with the great Republican mood swing, and many of the most eloquent proponents of conservative gloom are California-based Republicans who see the state’s current challenges as the deeply dystopian product of blue state progressive politics run wild.
California, as ever, is a paradox—a distilled and intensified version of the paradox of America itself. Cali-optimists, and there are quite a few of them, point to the state’s continuing role in the tech industry, to its leadership role in the fight against climate change, its progressive social values, and the extraordinary quality of its universities, hospitals, and biotech research facilities to argue that California remains at the frontier of human development.
Others point to grimmer indicators like crushing tax burdens; the highest or near-highest rates of adult illiteracy, economic inequality, incarceration, welfare dependency, and homelessness in the nation; and the steady flight of both industries and skilled workers to other states to argue that California is a failing state.
The optimists are of course right that California, which would be the fifth largest economy in the world if it were an independent country, remains a technological powerhouse. The Information Revolution and the revolution in biotech treading hard on its heels would both be moving much more slowly without Californian ingenuity and business sense. Between UC Berkeley and Stanford, the Bay Area remains a center of innovation and both intellectual and economic dynamism that the whole world yearns to copy.
At the same time, the Cali-pessimists are clearly not wrong. Homeless encampments filled with drug-addled lost souls, miserably failing school systems, wholesale store closings due to mass theft, a fiscal structure that looks more and more like a Ponzi scheme, businesses and middle-class workers in flight: This is surely not the best that our civilization can attain, nor is it an acceptable future for the United States.
Young Adults Delay Key Life Milestones
Adults who are 21 are less likely than their predecessors four decades ago to have reached five frequently cited milestones of adulthood: having a full-time job, being financially independent, living on their own, getting married and having a child. By the time they are 25, however, today’s young adults are somewhat closer to their predecessors in 1980 on two of these milestones: having a full-time job and financial independence.
In 2021, the most recent year with available data, 39% of 21-year-olds were working full time, compared with 64% in 1980. And only a quarter of people this age in 2021 were financially independent of their parents – meaning that their income was at least 150% of the poverty line – compared with 42% in 1980.
One factor that has contributed to fewer 21-year-olds having full-time jobs is the increase in college enrollment over the past four decades. Today, almost half of 21-year-olds (48%) are enrolled in college, whereas about three-in-ten (31%) were enrolled in 1980.
Today’s 21-year-olds also trail their predecessors on the other milestones analyzed. Around half of 21-year-olds (51%) were living somewhere other than their parents’ home in 2021, whereas the same was true for 62% of people their age in 1980. And only 6% of 21-year-olds had ever been married or had a child in their household in 2021, compared with 32% and 18%, respectively, of their predecessors in 1980.
Items of Interest
Wagner chief’s feud with Russian military cracks Putin’s image.
Kaufmann: The importance of free speech in higher ed.
Freeze or cut spending fight is the main event in debt ceiling talks.
White House turning desperate on debt.
The ludicrous scare tactics about Florida.
Are conservatives turning to Islam?
Ron DeSantis tries to become Trump’s successor.
Is DeSantis’s announcement too online?
Is Ozempic actually an addiction drug?
The Wes Anderson TikTok trend.
“Where people once sought information to manage the real context of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930's and 1940's and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful "Trivial Pursuit." In one form or another, each of these supplies the answer to the question, "What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?" And in one form or another, the answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?”
— Neil Postman