Before Tony Blair disappears altogether into Britain's and our own rearview mirrors, we owe it to him to hear his warnings about the media that so much shape contemporary culture.
You don't have to guess what the UK's recent prime minister thought on the subject. Late in June, he spoke candidly to a mixed audience at the London headquarters of Reuters news service-and he acknowledged candidly that what he said would be controversial. "I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters," he ventured.
And it was. While the British press scornfully discounted and disdained his critique, way too many other media observers around the world were even more cruel. They just ignored the substance of what Blair said.
He deserved better. After noting that the proliferation of media outlets in this internet age has forced all of them virtually to scream for attention, Blair spelled out how the media go about that process of seeking impact at almost any price.
They go for scandal and controversy, he said, ahead of ordinary reporting. "News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light."
The media attack motive instead of attacking judgment. He didn't spell out precisely how this happened to his friend George W. Bush-but the implication was clear. It's not bad enough for the media to say that Bush has simply made mistakes on various issues. They have to claim darkly instead that he calculated to mislead the American public.
The media, Blair charged, hunt in a pack. They are "like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits."
And Blair accused the media of elevating commentary on the news to a role higher than simply reporting the news-and regularly blurring the distinction between the two. "This is not exceptional," he said. "It is routine."
All this, Blair suggests, has come about because of the ferocity of the competition that now exists among the various media outlets. "Rolling 24-hour news programs cover events as they unfold. In the early 1980s, there were three TV stations broadcasting in the UK. Today there are hundreds. In 1995, over 200 TV shows had audiences of over 15 million [each]. Today there is almost none."
The sheer numbers on the one hand, coupled on the other with the incredible speed with which they are forced to produce, has trivialized rather than enhanced the competition.
So Blair argues that instead of blaming the media, we might well see them as victims. They are "increasingly and to a dangerous degree driven by 'impact.' Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course, the accuracy of a story counts. But it is often secondary to impact."
As correctives for such a diminished industry, the usually insightful Blair strangely offered two somewhat bizarre suggestions: first, that all the media reassert their own commitment to distinguish between news and comment; and second, that some form of government regulation might prove necessary.
Both those approaches strike me as dangerously counterproductive. With hundreds of media outlets going after each other tooth and toenail, let listeners and readers decide for themselves just how much raw news and how much analysis is good for them. And whatever you do, leave government bureaucrats out of the equation.
But along the way, the Blair questions seem like a good yardstick or checklist for measuring the media you depend on regularly. Are they putting scandal and controversy ahead of calmer news? Are they attacking motives more than judgment? Are they moving too much in a pack? If the answer is "yes" a bit too often, you might want to switch channels or subscriptions. And you also might want to tell the media you're leaving behind just why it was that you did so.