Nonfiction Chronicle

In the New York Times Book Review of 5 September 2005, I have brief reviews of five books: Philip Dray’s Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels’s Selling Sickness: How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All into Patients, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South, Bryan Murphy’s The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet, and Jesse Helms’s Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir.

An Austin marriage

Over at Kill Fee, Liz Brown has written a intriguing and sinister reverie inspired by the moment in 1973 when the 22-year-old Karl Rove was given the keys to the Bush family car and asked to pick George W. up at the train station. “He was wearing jeans, and a bomber jacket, and he had an aura of confidence and charisma,” Rove has recalled. Brown weaves the cinematic resonances of the episode into an essay that compares the energies between the two men to Tom Ripley’s stalking of Dickie Greenleaf in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and to Olive Chancellor’s wish to devote herself to Verena Tarrant in Henry James’s The Bostonians (“I should like to be able to say that you are my form—my envelope”).

Did Emerson believe in vampires?

I just spent three-quarters of an hour leafing through The Encyclopedia of New England, which promises pleasures nearly as great as The Encyclopedia of New York City, which it emulates, even unto its typeface. I regret to report that it has no entry devoted especially to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who deserves one. But it does have an entry on vampires.

New England vampires didn’t speak in faux-Hungarian or lurch about, waggling unkempt fingernails. Without using the word “vampire,” however, New Englanders did believe that people who died of consumption (i.e., tuberculosis) could suck the life out of those above ground who still loved them, especially those in their own family. To remove the threat, you had to dig up the corpse. You were looking for flesh still on the bones—and blood still in the heart. If you found it, you could turn the body face down and rebury it. Or you could burn the flesh off the skeleton and then re-inter the bones. For good measure, you might also arrange the bones in special patterns. Exhumations and reburials of recent consumption victims happened across small-town New England throughout the nineteenth century; the Encyclopedia of New England lists cases in 1793, 1794, 1796, 1799, 1807, 1810, 1817, 1827, 1830, 1854, 1874, 1889, and 1892, among other years.

Here’s my question: Did Emerson fear that his first wife was a vampire? Robert Richardson famously began his biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire with an account of Emerson opening the grave of Ellen Tucker Emerson on 29 March 1832. To Richardson, the act was a sample of Emerson’s existential courage; it demonstrated his willingness to see all of life, including death. Richardson noted that the practice wasn’t unheard of; Rufus Griswold and James Freeman Clarke also opened their wives’ coffins. But the doing of a thing by Rufus Griswold is not much of an extenuation. (I can’t quickly lay hands on whether Mrs. Griswold or Mrs. Clarke died of consumption, but if they did, I’m willing to include them too in my speculation.)

In Waldo Emerson: A Biography, Gay Wilson Allen saw the exhumation of the first Mrs. Emerson more darkly: “the act remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane” (182). Both Allen and Richardson remarked on the brevity of Emerson’s description in his journal. “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin,” he wrote, and nothing more.

In several respects, the Emerson case fits the profile. Ellen died of tuberculosis, and at the time that Emerson opened the coffin, his brothers Charles and Edward were endangered by the same disease. Emerson himself suffered greatly in his mourning of Ellen, and might have wondered about her hold on him. I doubt Emerson would have believed simple-mindedly in the New England vampire folklore, but I suspect he was aware of it, and it must have been part of the wider social context for his act.

Bad news and entertainment goods

In “Bad News,” Richard A. Posner suggests that economic forces are to blame for the current difficulties of American journalism—its political polarization, its attention to celebrity gossip, and its sensationalism. His analysis is provocative and wide-ranging, and where most analysts see trees, he sees groves. But I think he has nonetheless missed the forest.

Posner submits to the laws of supply and demand a few hypotheses about the fundamentals of the news market. “When competition is intense,” he writes, “providers of a service are forced to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want.” That sentence is hard to argue with. Some may argue with Posner’s rather dismal-scientific view of what the consumer wants: entertainment, ideological reassurance, and information about the world—roughly in that order. The bien-pensant elite may wish that the consumer wanted pure information, but she doesn’t, Posner insists. Posner made more or less the same pronouncement, a few years ago, about what people really want from public intellectuals. Some may argue with Posner on this. I don’t. Seen through Posner’s lens, idealism is merely one force among many, and the market, for better or worse, does not grant it any special privileges. It’s an interesting lens to look through.

Mere idealism won’t save journalism, in Posner’s optic. As a corollary, a lack of idealism hasn’t degraded it. Other forces have. What are they? How does Posner think the news market works? Here his generalizations need more scrutiny.

The crucial one is this: (1) When there are a small number of titles or channels in a news market, those titles and channels have an incentive to moderate their ideological slant. No news provider wants to alienate the middle-of-the-road news consumer, if he doesn’t have to. And if competitors are few, the slightly liberal newspaper doesn’t need to worry about a more liberal competitor, and the slightly conservative TV station doesn’t need to worry about a more conservative one. But (1A) when the number of titles and channels increases, the politics of newspapers and television stations polarizes, because they have to defend against challenges from the extremes.

Posner suggests a counterforce:

If economies of scale increase, and as a result the number [sc. the circulation] of newspapers grows, the opposite ideological change will be observed, as happened in the 19th century. The introduction of the ‘penny press’ in the 1830s enabled newspapers to obtain large circulations and thus finance themselves by selling advertising; no longer did they have to depend on political patronage.

This implies a second generalization: (2) When circulation numbers grow absolutely, news providers become less polarized and more professional. Posner doesn’t quite spell out why he thinks this. Maybe it’s because a highly polarized news product is not likely to appeal to a broad audience; maybe it’s because high circulation makes advertising income more important than subscriptions, and advertisers have a moderating influence on content, because they don’t want to lose customers by associating their brand with marginal or extreme political opinions. Presumably, this dynamic too may run in the opposite direction, and (2A) if circulation shrinks, news providers will become more polarized and less professional in a desperate search for readers and viewers.

These are fascinating hypotheses, but Posner gives no evidence to support them. I’m not sure, for instance, that the example of the 1830s demonstrates any of them. The number of newspaper titles exploded in the 1830s, and in that climate, biased and untrustworthy editors like James Watson Webb and his oedipal protege James Gordon Bennett pioneered the practice of modern reporting—of sending people out into the world to bring back facts to print. I suspect that people read Webb’s and Bennett’s papers as much for the facts as the bias. In other words, as the number of titles increased in the New York market, newspapers competed in satisfying the reader’s wishes for entertainment, solidarity, and enlightenment. Newspapers that set out to provide information with little to no bias—the strategy of Horace Greeley’s Tribune and more self-consciously, of Henry J. Raymond’s Times—came later. I simply don’t know enough to assess Posner’s generalizations statistically (by counting the number of newspapers in New York, rating their bias or lack of it, and finding their circulation numbers), but the flood of newsprint in the late nineteenth century, and the absurdly low professional standards of most of it, raise doubts in my mind about Posner’s second generalization. It isn’t clear to me, in other words, that a newspaper like the New York Times is necessarily associated with large circulations and few competitors.

Even less plausible is Posner’s emphasis on blogs. Posner treats them as rivals to newspapers and television stations, and takes their entry into the marketplace to be a shift in the market dynamic of massive proportions. According to his reasoning, the cost of starting a blog is negligible, so the number of titles has swollen, thus driving news providers to track their consumers’ true wishes more closely (per hypothesis 1A). Since the typical blog caters to a tiny niche of readers, they’ve chopped readership up into smaller and smaller chunks, further polarizing and depressing journalistic standards (per hypothesis 2A).

Here, too, I have serious doubts. There’s occasional grumbling, in the world linked to by Romenesko, that bloggers are ruining journalists’ lives, and as Posner points out, bloggers certainly make journalists lives more difficult, by talking back and by exposing and publicizing errors. But I’m not persuaded that they’re cutting into newspapers’ market share. Posner offers no evidence to support the idea. On the contrary, in his third paragraph, he quotes a statistic that more or less disproves it: “Daily readership [of newspapers] dropped from 52.6 percent of adults in 1990 to 37.5 percent in 2000.” That’s a staggering decline, but most of the blogs you read today did not exist in 2000. I tracked the Bush-Kerry race on blogs obsessively, but if there were any blogs around that might have leaked election-day polling results for Bush-Gore, I for one was not pressing the refresh button to read them. I’m writing this post in software whose spell checker is copyright 1999, and it insists on underlining “blog” with a curly red line, as misspelled. In other words, the decline of newspapers was well underway before blogs were any part of the cultural landscape.

To put the case another way: Do you think that The New Republic dents the circulation of the Washington Post? Though they are updated daily, blogs resemble TNR much more closely than they do WaPo. I suspect that almost all blog readers are already heavy print news consumers. Imagine the experiment of reading either Talking Points Memo or andrewsullivan.com exclusively for a few days while abstaining from newspapers—and no fair clicking through to the newspaper articles they link to. I think most people who tried it would quickly sink into stupor. Without the context provided by a stable news feed, you wouldn’t be able to follow the conversation. Sure, there may be a proportion of blog readers who reach news sites primarily by referral from blogs. But that is not an encroachment on newspapers’ market share. That’s a change in the way the product is delivered.

Celebrities, sensationalism, and political bias do not by themselves constitute a crisis in American journalism. They have been with us since 1833. Something is wrong, I agree, but I don’t think Posner has diagnosed it. Blogging is a harmless sideshow, a minority taste of the hyperliterate elite. The larger story—the forest that Posner did not see, while he was going after an innocent stand of poplars—is the decline in the habit of reading, including the reading of newspapers. The mistake in Posner’s analysis was made at the outset, when he failed to distinguish between newspaper titles and television channels. He writes as if a single dynamic governed the behavior of both media, when, I suspect, the most interesting analyses would tackle the differences in the media and their competition with each other. Except for a small group—most of whom probably read blogs—Americans read less and less often, at lower and lower levels of sophistication. Blogs preserve in a hypertrophied state the virtues of print journalism that are lost in the transition to streaming media. People don’t want to read about the decline in literacy, and by fingering blogs as the cause of print journalism’s difficulties, Posner has deftly avoided it. As Posner notes, “Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media.”