In Orson Welles’s classic movie Citizen Kane, the eponymous hero publishes a statement of principles on the front page of his newspaper, “I’ll provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. … They’re going to get the truth from the Enquirer, quickly and simply and entertainingly and no special interests are going to be allowed to interfere with that truth.” It is a promise that Kane, a character loosely based on the press baron William Randolph Hearst, ultimately breaks. Today, the point Welles was trying to make is easily misunderstood. The movie is not being cynical about journalism, nor about the goal of searching for truth. Kane’s tragedy is that he falls short of his noble ideals. The movie was therefore acknowledging the contract that existed between journalists and their audiences during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the expectation that journalists ought to search for, and report, the truth.
We have travelled a long way since then. The media ecosystem of the early 21st century is marked by a collapse of trust in journalism. How did we get here? As we look back, like a detective searching for clues, one moment stands out as significant; the publication on March 1st, 1962, of The Gutenberg Galaxy, written by a then-obscure Canadian academic named Marshall McLuhan. This book set in motion a line of falling dominoes, the consequences of which continue to affect us profoundly today.
McLuhan came to be regarded by the Baby Boomer generation as a guru and prophet; a visionary who had discovered something profound, not merely about the media, but about life and the universe. During the 1960s, he became a major celebrity, especially in the US. He featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine, was frequently interviewed on TV, and made a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall. There was even a prog rock band named in his honor. The American media historian Aniko Bodroghkozy writes that “no other figure who was not of the movement itself received so much positive notice in the alternative newspapers that served dissident youth communities.” In 1965, the celebrity journalist Tom Wolfe asked breathlessly, “Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Pavlov?” Wolfe described McLuhan as an almost Christ-like figure:
A lot of McLuhanites have started speaking of him as a prophet. It is only partly his visions of the future. It is more his extraordinary attitude, his demeanor, his qualities of monomania, of mission. He doesn’t debate other scholars, much less TV executives. He is not competing for status; he is alone on a vast unseen terrain, the walker through walls, the X-ray eye.
Writing in 1967, John Quirk agreed that McLuhan was a “savant and prophet” and explained that, “McLuhanites hold that the new technologies will lend men the awareness and instruments necessary to solve contemporary problems and inaugurate a bright new era.” McLuhan was a master of the catchy one-liner and the original source of Timothy Leary’s famous counterculture catchphrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Writing in the underground paper the Spectator in 1969, Ken Rogers described McLuhan as “one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers,” whose ideas would help the Boomer generation change the world and make it a better place:
It is only by rejecting the conventional wisdom, to the extent of at least opening our minds to radically different possibilities, that we are going to effect any lasting beneficial change in our circumstances. To think freely, imaginatively, change-fully, we must willingly suspend our “common-sense,” and seriously play with new ways of looking at things. … McLuhan’s book provides such an opportunity for expanded awareness.
I’m looking into this piece, reading it today and later looking to compare it to my own recent article on McLuhan for Cyberpunks.com
written by Cypress Butane