The Crisis of Authority

Rick Perlstein has a very nice op-ed putting the fringe rightwing craziness of today in the broader context of American fringe right-wing craziness. Then he makes this point:

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”

I guess one thing I would say to this is that the change in the media is part of a much broader shift in American society. Technological and economic change has just made authority weaker and tended to fragment perspectives. If you think of, for example, popular music things like MTV and Top 40 radio stations don’t have the level of cultural power that they once did. It’s extremely easy for people to bury themselves in a subculture of their liking and not worry too much about the mainstream. Or maybe you ignore the dross that is prime time television programming and rely on cable channels and Netflix instead. Walter Cronkite broadcast at a time when when big cultural players could really run things in a way they can’t these days. That shift has had a lot of consequences, some good and some bad.