“The vast democracy wall that the Internet provides” vs. the LA Times Book Review (R.I.P.)

antonego.jpgTalk about a trainwreck.

Last night as I was running out the door, I caught a snippet of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS. It was a point-counterpoint discussion between Steve Wasserman, the former editor of the now-axed LAT Book Review, and Kassia Krozser, the founder & editor of booksquare.com, a book review site & publishing industry hub that, FWIW, I’d never heard of.*

The segment was intended to discuss the elimination of the LAT Book Review from the Sunday paper. Tribune loose cannon Sam Zell deep-sixed the little insert, which was one of the few sections of the paper I read anymore (and for which I had the privelege of penning two book reviews). Wasserman called the elimination of the review a “philistine blunder,” while Krozser seemed to have been brought in to defend the Internet, which to my mind is a separate issue from whether the paper Review should have been cut or not.

Throughout the segment, I found myself whipsawed over which interviewee I detested more…

My analysis, before I plunge you into my experience of this horrific trainwreck: This REALLY should have been a conversation on, “Why aren’t people reading professional news & analysis anymore? Is it because it’s staid and boring? Is it because we’re inundated with too much information? Is it because we’re undereducated & out of touch? Is it because old media no longer knows how to serve new generations?”

Sadly, the main issues in this conversation devolved into the so-tired-it’s-nodding-off “print vs. web” bullshit.

Wasserman came across as a crumbling, creaky defender of Old Media, sounding like he should be drinking tea in a wood-paneled library somewhere calling for his manservant to stoke the fire; and nasally, over spectacles, announcing the latest lineup for Masterpiece Theatre–in other words, a complete elitist snob.**

OTOH, Krozser looked like an inarticulate case-in-point poster child for everything Wasserman was bitching about: stammering, desperately searching for words, throwing out nonsensical space-fillers like “really, really incredibly cool,” “you know,” and “people are excited about books. They want to talk about books. And that’s really incredible.” Really? Is it…really? Of the Web’s wide world of clever talking heads & quip-ready smartasses, why couldn’t they have found someone who could stand up to Wasserman?!

The whole discussion derailed, caught up in Wasserman bitching about the intellectual superiority of print and Krozser lamely attempting to defend the relevance of the Web, only digging the Web deeper with her every sputtering denial.

Memo to Mr. Wasserman (don’t worry, I won’t e-mail it–I’ll have a runner send it over. Better yet, how about Pony Express?): The medium does not dictate the quality of the content.***

Now, compared to Wasserman I’m an uneducated rube who stubbornly refuses to read War & Peace out of pugnaciously stubborn anti-intellectualism; and compared to Krozser I know jack shit about online book-related communities which are, surely, “really, really incredibly cool,” but I still have to sound off about this. Feel free to take it however you see fit, as the ramblings of a gal who thinks it’s a hoot to Twitter about raptors during a 5.8 earthquake.

You can read the entire depressing blow-by-blow here, but here’s what happened, in my shorthand:

Moderator: Dude, Steve. Sucks to be you. You & your recently-sacked pals fired off a nasty letter to the LAT calling the elimination of the Sunday Book Review a “colossal blunder.” Daaaa-yum.

Wasserman: The LAT’s had a book review since we were all a bunch of hippies in 1975. It’s had a Sunday Book Review every week since then. Discontinuing this bastion of literary brilliance is a total fuck-up.

Me, watching: But can’t you just put it online now with all the same content, maybe even more?

Wasserman: [Ignores me.]

Moderator: Steve, the section was losing money. Doesn’t it make sense to cut it?

Wasserman: Tribune and Zell are making bank and the Book Review NEVER made money. We were doing it for The Art. The Book Review is super important since more books than ever are getting published these days.

Me, watching: But dude. Can’t you just continue your work on the internet?

Wasserman: [Still can’t seem to hear me.]

Moderator: Well, Kassia Krozser, you live there in Los Angeles, even though I’m in New York and therefore probably know much more about books than you ever will. How do you see the demise of the book section in the newspaper?

Krozser: [Looking directly above the upper left corner of the tv screen] Well, the LAT hasn’t been supporting the Review for a long time now. I mean, half the time people throw it away and don’t even know it’s there.

Me at Krozser: Why are you looking at my ear?

Krozser: [Ignores me]

Moderator: So, is everything shifting online?

Me: !!!!1!

Krozser, astutely: Well, Amazon started up in 1994. Craigslist took over classifieds. There’s all sorts of big online communities of people who love books. And I think that’s really, really incredibly cool.

[Ok, I’m cutting & pasting directly now, because I’m impressed by (1) how erudite Wasserman can be on the fly and (2) what a goddamn intellectual snob he comes off as:]

Wasserman: Well, to oppose the Internet I suppose would be like to oppose climate change. I have no problem with the vast democracy wall that the Internet provides on which everyone, every crank and every sage can post his or her pronunciamento.

But what’s lost here is the discriminatory filter provided by people who have embraced journalism as a craft. What has been lost here is the authority, such as it ever was, of newspaper people trying to do a job well done.

I do not see foreign coverage being replaced by the activity of individuals on the Internet bloviating about this or that.

And despite the robust nature or at least the very excited nature of the conversation on the Internet, the best criticism still being written today is being published, say, in magazines, James Wood in the New Yorker, or Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic, or Christopher Hitchens in the pages of the Atlantic.

And it will be a long time before the Internet gives us a forum in which such people unsupported by institutions can deliver us that kind of literary criticism. At their best, the newspapers were an exercise in delivering to us that kind of informed criticism, which was the work of professionals who had devoted a lifetime to the consideration of literature.

Me: [Jaw drops at Wasserman’s complete lack of touch and ivory-tower bullshit: Talk about “bloviating!” While I completely agree that the quality of the conversation on the Internet is not up to the level of Wasserman’s name-checked “professionals,” whose fault is that?! And why is it so inconceivable that these “professionals” could appear on the Internet?! Aren’t they already on the internet? Wait, wait: a Google for Christopher Hitchens turns up 2,710,000 results; Leon Wieseltier, 76,600; and James Wood, 763,000. Wasserman, your good ‘ole boys are ALREADY online! Clearly you’re just shit-talking the Internet as the realm of “every crank and every sage” simply because you haven’t gone online since 1998!]

Returning to my paraphrasing:

Moderator: Okay, retard lady with the lazy eye, what do you say to THAT?! Oh snap!

Krozser: Blargh. Wut you meen? We rite reel gud. Intarnets much funner than stupid boring paper. [Eye wanders to focus for one brief shining moment, then snaps back to upper left of frame, where something riveting must be going on; maybe the cameraman is holding up a puppet]

Moderator: I’m going to interrupt your nonsensical pratter to go back to Mr. Snobby Snobberson over here. Will the cutting of the Book Review fuck over publishers and authors at all?

Wasserman: The Book Review was very very important. More people in LA buy books than any other place in the US (except New York, you assholes). And we’ve got the LAT Festival of Books every year, which of course obviously leads to the fact that the Book Review is indispensible.

THE ONLY USEFUL PIECE OF INFO IN THIS ENTIRE INTERVIEW NOW EMERGES: [and I quote]:

Wasserman: But the important point here is that the Los Angeles Times, as well as other newspapers around the country…has constricted its space not only in the print medium, but they’ve not added people to expand what they do online either.
The Los Angeles Times fired 40 percent of its Book Review staff, and it has not added people to increase coverage online. It’s not about the instrument with which the news is conveyed; it’s about the content. And content is king.

Back to my paraphrasing:

Moderator: Ok lady, since you came across so pathetically during this entire conversation, I’ll give you the last word.

Krozser: Sputter. The Times doesn’t “get” the internets. You just don’t understand us! You never have! You’re just so lame and old and out of touch. I hate you I hate you I hate you! That thing over your left ear is really fascinating, by the way.

FIN
*In checking out her web site, I found Krozser to be articulate and clear in print, and able to communicate her ideas perfectly fine, which leads me to believe she’s just one of those internet folks who choke when required to appear corporeally. I also have to like her for giving props to David Ulin, who was my extremely-cool editor when I wrote my reviews for the Times.

**Don’t get me wrong–I myself am an unapologetic snob. But I honestly can’t bemoan the demise of the art of the review; it’s a falsehood, when the internet is just as good a publishing platform as newsprint.

***Or DOES it? Is there something inherent in the Internet that makes high-art intellectual discourse impossible, or at least more difficult? Does it come down to the good old-fashioned question of money–the Web can’t pay the money it takes to keep Wasserman’s “professionals” in their cups and attending their fashionable hobnobs with celebs & politicos in Vanity Fair’s FOB section?

12 Replies to ““The vast democracy wall that the Internet provides” vs. the LA Times Book Review (R.I.P.)”

  1. Ditto what she said.
    Brilliant piece on your part, see your frustration very clearly.
    I think it goes back further than the net though it probably helped shorten the attention span of some. Fast snippets is what a lot of people like to see.

  2. I think the reason people don’t read anymore is because they’d rather see your version

    Annika, people still have to read online print.

    Lucinda and I don’t usually agree on much but I think a ball has been hit out of the park with this one. Very funny and very astutely sad at the same time.

  3. Funny. And, yes, true. The conversation would have worked better in a different venue, but I’m happy that the conversation is continuing elsewhere. Thank you for actually going the extra mile to verify that I’m not always an inarticulate idiot.

  4. Hmm. It looks like they have yet to feel the might of Super-Gore, Internet Inventor (rtmc)

    *smirk*

  5. Alright, one more comment from me.

    Just thought, looking at the nature of the parties, maybe it could be worth an incidental mention to mention the World Association of Newspapers, and The Editors Weblog. While the latter — personally speaking — may seem to offer some dry fare, but maybe perhaps it could be worth an incidental look, ever.

    The WAN recently held a conference somewhere in Asia. Looking at the conference stuff they’d published, it looked like newspaper “giants” have indeed been grappling with “how to adapt us to the online medium”.

    Like it should be that difficult … but, that’s another thing.

    Alright, two more cents: “Business as usual” translates to “contrivance”, in my unabridged English-English dictionary. If you build you business to rely on contrivance, you’re going to have a very tough time in adapting to new cultural trends. To rely on the essence of doing business in what the particular business is doing business in — speaking most generally, here — is it not enough, to take *that* kind of approach to business?

    I mean, geez, it’s like nobody was making a science out of economy…

  6. I’ve been spamming every librarian and bookstore owner I know with this post since you mentioned it on twitter and forgot to leave a comment.

    As a book lover, when I heard the Times was cutting the Book Review, my initial reaction was a melodramatic, ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”. Nanoseconds later, I remembered that even as a 20 year subscriber to the Times, I never read the Book Review. Why? Because it’s not relevant to me. Yes, I flip through it, but there’s never any reviews of books I’d actually read. Instead, it’s all autobiographies, biographies, history of the betel nut in 1894 Costa Rica, and political books by people whose politics do not align with mine. Those exceptionally rare times a book that I would read would be reviewed, the loftiness of the reviewer struck me dumb. I was left with a sense that if I happened upon this person in a bookstore, I’d have to shove up bookmark up their ass.

    Yes, besides that fact that too many of my friends are librarians, bookstore owners and/or authors, I’ve realized that over the last 15 years, I’ve been getting my book reading tips from everyday people online. Library Thing has opened me up to a world of books I would have never read and yes, that includes the history of the betel nut in 1894 Costa Rica.

  7. Now, THAT was much needed comic relief. Well done! Just when I think I’ve come across the newspaper curmudgeon of the year, I am proved wrong yet again. The arrogance that I’ve seen in the newspaper industry is one of the main reasons the industry is in this position. There was a lot of time to adapt and grow. I wonder: “Content” may not be king after all. It’s often beaten by “Denial.”

  8. If you think that Wasserman is insufferable on a television show, where his pontification can at least be edited, I invite you to picture what it was like when he was allowed to moderate panels at the Festival of Books. Not content to ask mere questions of the authors or to toss out a few interesting ideas for them to bat around, instead our Steve would consume minute after precious minute of the tightly timed sessions constructing examples of his famous on-the-fly erudition for the delight and improvement of the lucky, lucky crowd. The writers were usually very good about it, but you could see the audience members lined up at the microphone for Q&A giving him homicidal looks as time grew shorter and his lengthy disquisitions grew lengthier. I damn near killed him myself one afternoon.

    And whom are we kidding, anyway? “[T]rying to do a job well done”? I’ll take “really, really, incredibly cool” over that any day. It may not be erudite, but at least it comes by its redundancy honestly.

  9. I’d rather read a summary like this one of the McNeil-Lemon hour instead of sitting and sifting thru it for these nuggets of insights. Thanks for the great post!

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