Entry from January 9, 2009

Tina Brown, like the poor, we have always with us, apparently. Having made the transit from Tatler to Vanity Fair to The New Yorker to the ill-fated Talk, she has at last fetched up, like every other bit of journalistic flotsam, including yours truly, on the Internet. Her latest enterprise is called The Daily Beast, after the fictional newspaper helmed by Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s great novel, Scoop — presumably so titled in order to stress the po-mo element both in the career of T. Brown herself, since her days with some of the more august titles in the journalistic canon, and in Internet journalism more generally. It’s a nice bit of self-mockery. But then all newspapers are fictional now, or they might as well be. Certainly, they need to be treated as such.

Miss Brown told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post last month that she is “hugely admiring” of a similar Internet operation run by her fellow expatriate diva, Arianna Huffington and, according to Mr Kurtz, she “calls the media chatter ‘irresistible, because it’s so much fun. If there isn’t a catfight, you have to invent one.” Lord Copper would be proud, I suppose, though it’s hard to imagine him taking much interest in the business. “Fun” is not exactly what he got out of running his version of The Daily Beast.

For there is neither, for better or for worse, so much money nor so much prestige at stake in Internet scribbling as there was back in the 1930s in running a popular newspaper. The test, as Lord Copper would perhaps point out, is not whether or not you can stage a catfight but whether or not you can get anyone besides Howard Kurtz to care very much about it. What’s missing is the common culture that the old newspapers, fictional and non-fictional alike, could appeal to. Now that that has gone all to smash, our media world — both of the dead-tree and of the electronic sort — is increasingly a vast collection of discrete tribal entities who talk only among themselves and rarely to each other.

To her credit, Miss Brown seems to want to do something about this. As Tucker Carlson told Mr Kurtz, “She’s totally open-minded. She has a single criterion: Is it interesting? She’s never said, ‘That doesn’t fit my political view.’” There’s only one subject on which, as it appears, she takes a dogmatically, politically correct position, and it is that of the man who is, for a few more days at least, the President of the United States. Mr Kurtz acknowledges that, although “Brown describes her politics as ‘centrist’. . . she often seems to lean left.” Oh, really? What do you suppose was his first clue? Perhaps it was the fact that, as he tells us, “she recently described the Bush administration as a ‘Hallowe’en shop of horrors.’” Hardly anyone is likely to pay a price today for being open-minded about everything except the President.

Yet I’m afraid that The Daily Beast may pay one. Certainly it confirms the website’s status as yet another victim of cultural fragmentation. You could see this in its heading to an article the other day by Christopher Buckley titled “Carnival of the Shameless.” In Mr Buckley’s view, the shameless — he rather pretentiously gives them a Spanish name, sinverguenzas — include Rod Blagojevich and Bernard Madoff and possibly Roland Burris but definitely not René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, the French aristocrat who killed himself out of a becoming sense of shame at having ruined a number of clients by investing their money with Mr Madoff. So far so good. I’m with him there, of course. Hooray for the French aristo and his anachronistic sense of noblesse oblige. If only more people would take the Roman way in such circumstances, say I.

But there was a sub-head to Mr Buckley’s piece which read as follows: “What do Dubya, Blago, Bernie Madoff, and Roland Burris have in common? No regrets!” As there had been no mention of “Dubya” by Christopher Buckley, presumably this was added by Miss Brown or someone else at the Beast who failed to understand the difference — some of us old Romans would say that it is all the difference in the world — between shamelessness and acting on principle or conviction, however misguided.

Interestingly, this same failure is the reason why we have so many shameless people: because there is no longer a consensus as to what is and is not shameful. There’s that darned cultural fragmentation again! I daresay there are even others, besides Messrs. Blagojevich and Madoff themselves that is, who do not believe that what those gentlemen have done is shameful. Certainly there is a still quite large constituency of those who think that what the President has done is the reverse of anything that could be considered matter for shame and that, in doing what he sincerely believed to be right, he chose the brave and noble course, rather than shamefully pandering to public opinion — which is the god that Tina Brown, The Daily Beast and (dare I say it?) the Internet itself serve. And where you have quantifiable public opinion — as opposed to a genuinely public sentiment to which all (substantially) subscribe, there you will have the death of shame.

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