Voices

End of elitism

Does media democracy also bring mediocrity?

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

The de-elitism of the media is something you should both welcome and worry about.

Naturally, I hope that when you hear the term "media elite," WORLD magazine isn't the first thing that pops into your mind. I'd rather instead that you would conjure up images of the arrogant and pompous folks at The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, and the Public Broadcasting System.

But the undeniable fact is that elitism is pretty much a built-in component of any media effort. Just to go to all the bother of assembling a weekly package with a particular perspective on that week's news is to say, right on the face of it, that we have a pretty healthy opinion of that perspective. And when we say flat out that we think a bigger bunch of folks should be paying more attention to our weekly package, we're not exactly putting forward a compelling picture of modesty.

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With each issue, we're suggesting not only that we have the ability to sort and cull and select and reject-but also that we have the insight to do all that in a way that will please and help you. Implicit in the whole exercise is the suggestion that if you would just think the way we do, things would be better.

So now, when I see the journalistic profession deliberately and forthrightly discussing the wisdom of coming down from some of their elitist perches and handing over chunks of the media enterprise to the common folk, I'm startled.

For the seven months since the 2004 election, for example, there's been a big discussion among many in the mainstream news media about whether they've been too elitist (and distant) in their coverage of religion-and whether the folks on those beats really understand the subject they're supposed to be covering. Most mainstream reporters I know would be hard pressed to give even an elementary definition of an "evangelical" Christian-in part because most have never even known or worked closely with such a person. But some of those reporters are also scared of implementing the very diversity they sense is lacking. "I think we have to sort of take that out and examine that a little more closely," said Edward Wasserman after devoting a column to the issue in The Miami Herald. "Do you want science writers who are creationists? . . . Do you want people covering the AIDS epidemic who believe that AIDS was an affliction of an angry god-punishment for moral turpitude?" The questions may be fair enough-if only they were asked with equal vigor in both directions. As they are asked, they paint a picture of an ever escalating elitism, where only the experts know exactly what mix of perspectives will be just right.

Yet while some of our journalistic colleagues seem to grow ever smugger in their elitist positions, others in their own high places-perhaps especially in the halls of the journalism schools-are advocating a radical democratization of the journalistic enterprise. Technologically aided by the arrival of the internet in the 1990s, and nudged now by a blizzard of blogging, such equal-opportunity editors take a come-one-come-all attitude into the publishing marketplace, seemingly without concern for whatever dumbing-down effect such an approach is certain to bring.

This, I suggest, is a response to elitism that should worry or even scare us. It's a little too much like saying that we should democratize the processes by which we choose brain surgeons, airline pilots, or elementary math teachers. It may sound generous and well-meaning-up until your first patient dies on the operating table, your first plane crashes, or you produce a classroom full of 12-year-olds who never learned long division. There is a place for expertise, and just because some experts have never learned how to be modest about what they know doesn't mean you throw their expertise out the window.

New technology lets everyone become an expert. Everyone can write and illustrate and self-publish his or her own newspaper, magazine, or book. Everyone can compose and produce his or her own musical or movie or stage play. Everything is now of equal value and equal worth.

Except that now I find myself wondering regularly which is worse-suffering under the arrogance of the elitists, or suffering under the democratic mediocrity of those who finally elbowed the elitists aside.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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