In Case You Missed It: Events And Trends Of 2009

Vogue Magazine film critic John Powers talks about the year in media: the major events, the trending topics and the evolution of social networking.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

We're looking back on the year in pop culture. Here to talk about the big media stories of the year is our critic-at-large, John Powers, who is also film critic for Vogue and writes the blog Absolute Powers at vogue.com. He used to write a column about the intersection of politics and culture for L.A. Weekly.

Hi, John. Now, we asked you to talk about a couple of the biggest media stories of the year that you wanted to comment on. So let's start with the fact that last year, the big media story was the election, and this year it was President Obama. And last year, he was a media phenomenon. This year, he was discussed in a different way on the media.

So as we end 2009, I'd like you to talk about the impact of President Obama on the media landscape.

JOHN POWERS: Well, I think the most striking thing is that a man who was elected with everyone - whether they liked him or not - thinking he's kind of a cool and calming influence, proved over the course of 2009 not to have a presidency that turned out to be cool and calming at all.

And this is really clear in the media, where we find that things are now as ratcheted up, I think, as they were during an election year, which I think is, in a way, startling and perhaps unprecedented.

I mean, one of the strange features of the run-up to last year's election was that President Bush had had what most people would consider one of the longest lame-duck presidencies in American history. And as part of that, that allowed the media coverage to flow into what seemed like the longest election campaign in all of human history.

And I thought that people would be tired of that, yet what oddly happened out of this was that the media got into a kind of permanent campaign mode so that now we're living in a world where everything seems to be as ratcheted as high as it was during an election campaign, even though, really, President Obama has been in office 11 months. He has 37 months to go before he's up for reelection, yet we somehow live in this media world where everything he does is subjected to immediate response, immediate polls and things like that.

GROSS: Do you think that's, in a way, a sign of the fact that the culture wars did not subside with the election of President Obama?

POWER: They didn't subside at all. I mean, what's interesting in media terms is the way that everything flipped so that for eight years, a network like Fox News, which is a conservative network, was clearly on the side of the administration, whereas people at MSNBC, for instance, the most famously liberal of the cable networks, were very anti the current administration.

All of a sudden, you switch, where a Democrat is president, and suddenly the liberals are playing defense, in a sense, and Fox has, I think, gotten a kind of new lease on life because they actually get to do the thing that I think most journalists prefer to do, which is to go on the attack.

That's where the fun is. It's not fun as a journalist - and I can tell you this as a person who is a journalist and who knows them. It's not fun to be the person saying OK, maybe the health care plan isn't exactly what all of you hoped for, but it's still a good plan. It's much more fun to say it's going to take down the economy. The money doesn't work out. In fact, there might be death panels. That's the fun side. The un-fun side is defending the current administration.

GROSS: Though I have to say, on MSNBC, people like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann don't necessarily defend the administration. They're often very critical.

POWER: They are. Well, I think that's one of the interesting cultural, stylistic differences between conservatives and liberals, and in particular, Republicans and Democrats. You know, you see that in the actual Congress, where there is a solid vote in the House, for instance, where no one will vote for various proposals of Obama, whereas Obama will lose 40 or 50 Blue Dog Democrats on lots of votes in the House.

And that's the cultural style. Liberals take pride in being so honest that they will, if necessary, they will rip apart their own standard-bearers in the interest of that honesty. And conservatives take pride in being disciplined and actually falling in line. And so you actually have the case where on certain nights, Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann are as critical, if not more critical, of Obama than you find on Fox.

GROSS: This was the year that Glenn Beck emerged as a star of the right. What do you think explains his success?

POWER: Well, I think there are two things about Glenn Beck. The first is that he embodies a particularly strident form of conservatism that was almost a natural consequence of the election of a Democrat who's thought to be liberal, an African-American, and this after eight years of a Republican administration.

So there's that first side of just the ideological side. The second side is that he is, in his way, an astonishing performer. The person he reminds me most of - and this dates me a little bit, although I didn't watch the show much when I was, because I was growing up - is Jack Paar, who was this hugely volatile, late-night talk-show host, you know, of "The Tonight Show," who would weep on the air and say outrageous things and then come back the next night and have to apologize and make outlandish claims and champion his favorites.

And what Glenn Beck does is he weds the ideological side of himself with the entertainment, volatility side of himself because nobody becomes a big success, whether it's Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, if it's pure ideology. To succeed in the current climate doing ideological radio, you have to be a good entertainer, and Glenn Beck is this person. Even if you don't like him, it's sometimes hard not to watch him because you don't know what he'll do.

GROSS: I think Jack Paar's going to come back from his grave and demand equal time to defend himself against the comparison with Glenn Beck.

POWER: Well, the thing is, I don't think Jack Paar is like Glenn Beck, but in this particular respect, personality-wise, what they have in common is there's an immediacy and volatility to what they do. That's really what I think, and I can't think of anyone in the media landscape in the years since Jack Paar who was that way.

When I was a kid, I remember how my parents, who were great Jack Paar worshippers, always hated Johnny Carson because they thought he was the slick, packaged version of something.

Clearly, I mean, Paar was a liberal, not a conservative. You know, Paar brought on Castro onto his show. I don't think Glenn Beck will bring Castro onto his.

GROSS: John Powers will be back in the second half of the show as we continue our look back on the year in pop culture. John is our critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. He writes the blog Absolute Powers at vogue.com. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're looking back at 2009 in popular culture with three of our critics. Let's get back to our interview with our critic-at-large John Powers. He is also film critic for Vogue and he used to write a column on the intersection of culture and politics for L.A. Weekly. John's talking about the year in media.

Now, one of the media stories that got the most coverage this year, which I know you want to talk about as one of your big media stories of the year, was Michael Jackson's death. And I wonder, what do you think it says that there was so much continuous coverage on the news channels and daily coverage in a lot of newspapers about his death and the subsequent funeral and family stories and so on?

POWERS: Well, I think whenever a story is this big there's at least one side to it. And in this case, I think there were two huge sides to it. The first is one about the media in general, which is that we're living through a moment when almost all the traditional media feel that they're living in a fragmenting landscape where everything is crumbling around them. And they're terrified that they're losing their audience. So, they spend all their time looking for the one big story that everybody can talk about and will understand.

And Michael Jackson offered this because he was for a time probably the most famous person in the world. So, if you're a media person and someone like Michael Jackson dies, you then realize, oh, this is somebody who everybody knows. And, in fact, we will do this constantly because, in fact, this is the thing that might seem to bind together in audience. And so everyone rushes to that one big story.

You know, in shorter term versions they did the same thing with balloon boy. In political terms that's happening with Sarah Palin right now. You know, if I can just take this side step with Sarah Palin, it's interesting that she is the first person to run for vice president who lost, who a year after is still bigger headlines sometimes than the president. And this is because everybody knows she is a hot button figure, everyone knows who she is and she can be part of one big story of the day when she says something.

The second side of the Michael Jackson thing is that he was an amazing figure. You know, it's not pure trashiness in our culture that made people interested in Michael Jackson. A lot of people in America knew him as a cute little kid who could sing. He then went on to make some of the most popular and influential pop music of all time, had a weird personal life that brought in things like his sense of his own racial identity, the weird family dynamics he had, all the stuff with wanting to grow - not wanting to grow up. You know, he had Neverland Ranch. So, the idea of the eternal boy thing, you know, he contained that, too.

So, you put all of that there and then you add in the fact that probably he might have been maybe the most influential crossover artist and breakthrough racial figure in American life. When I look at the great crossover figures and the ones that seem to quote �transcend race,� although that's a silly term, you realize that Oprah is one of them, Michael Jordon was one of them. And, you know, Obama was perceived to be one of them, you know, but clearly the person who got there first was Michael Jackson. At the time he died I kept telling people that I think it's quite possible you wouldn't have an Obama presidency if Michael Jackson hadn't been the most influential entertainer in the �80s and early �90s.

GROSS: We've been talking about the media - any thoughts about how the Internet has changed in 2009, as we end this decade?

POWERS: Well, I think that what's peculiar about how the Internet has changed is that what I thought was the fastest and most immediacy-obsessed thing in the world has grown faster and more immediacy-obsessed in the course of this year. I mean, I think the whole - and to me, rather tiresome Twitter phenomenon means that what has happened is that we've gone from thinking that we could get something every hour or every half hour to the realization that people can send you out things that will reach you every single second of the day. And that people have begun filing their thoughts from the least likely of places.

I mean, to me, I find it astonishing that professional basketball players, for instance, sitting on the bench will actually be sending out more or less personal newscasts from the bench in the course of a game. So, I think that the most striking feature of it is that. And then probably the parallel one, which is slightly different, which is a deeper phenomenon, is the incredible explosion of social networking, so that I think probably more people over the age of 30 joined Facebook than the people behind Facebook would ever have imagined possible if they lived forever. That - the idea that all of a sudden then you can be sending out your tendrils everywhere is a radically transformative idea.

I mean, I know that I have heard from ex-girlfriends, high school people I hadn't talked to, people who hear me on the show and hate me, I mean, the whole thing - in a way they never could before because of the social networking thing. And I'm not a big time social networker. We've reached the point, interestingly enough, where traditional old media people will go into editorial meetings - the most famous papers and magazines in the country and their editors will say, make sure you tweet your articles.

You know, it's like, really, like, the New York Times people have to tweet their articles? They write for the New York Times. And yet this is the way that it's gone. They will tell the people at, you know, Time Magazine, make sure you put your article on Facebook. And once again you think, but this is Time Magazine. They don't have to put their article on Facebook. And yet, that's what's happening.

GROSS: So, what you do with your articles?

POWERS: I put my articles on Facebook. I have yet to enter the Twitter-sphere but I have found that I get much more response from what I do if I put it on social networking sites, that people do see them there and in fact it does push readership up. And if nothing else, my friends can always see what I'm saying in a way they hadn't seen before. And, you know, then they can, you know, write sniping little notes about the mistakes I made, which is what friends are for, you know.

And so I do it but I find it strange to be in the realm of self-promotion. You know, I think most writers have huge-enough egos and all sorts of weird vanities but I think one of the ways that it's changed is that I think that none of us thought that in addition to writing a piece maybe your job is to be out there selling the piece in the public. But in a landscape where no one feels that anything will necessarily get noticed, then it's very complicated.

GROSS: Now, when you say you get more of a response now that you're on Facebook, do you mean that more people respond because it's a responsive type of media or do you think that the audience is actually bigger on Facebook, the readership is bigger on Facebook than in the actual magazine? And is there any way of really telling for sure?

POWERS: Well, I think in the case of Vogue the actual magazine still gets a much bigger readership than what I would do online. Partly because I work for a magazine that's only recently began putting a lot of resources into going online. But what I found is that, you know, for example, let's take a piece I write about film. I have been friended by almost everyone from studios and publicists and everyone involved in film, you know, in one way or another, they're on my friends list.

If I post something, the people who are immediately interested in it read it and then they pass it on to other people because they will post it on their site. So, what happens is that it ripples out in that particular way, one person at a time. But if you're talking to someone who's a publicist with a friends list of 4,000 people and they post the fact that I've posted my thing and they say it's good, suddenly you're more likely to have those 4,000 people reading it. And it's a very different kind of thing. It's - where it's almost like person by person that you're doing it rather than just assuming that what you're doing is so important that, in fact, anybody will automatically pick it up.

GROSS: And, of course, just because somebody is putting it on Facebook or tweeting it doesn't mean that anyone is reading it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...necessarily. I just...

POWERS: Oh...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

POWERS: No, no, I think that more than at any point in history there's this weird difference between different kinds of media, where if you write for certain places you think - you feel as if you're putting a message in a bottle and throwing it out there and you're not sure whether anybody is reading it. And at the same time you have people with small little blogs with their dedicated group of 50 or 60 readers who are always replying. So, they, in fact, have instant feedback and community and those will be people who basically don't really have many readers.

And then people who have lots and lots of readers will often get almost no comments because they're part of a big media organization and people don't really feel the same intimacy. And so, therefore, they don't reply to it. So that you're - you can be, you know, you could be probably be writing for The New York Times and not hear much from anybody and have a tiny little blog and seem to be hearing from everybody. And yet, if you write for the New York Times, you'll have like, you know, a thousand times bigger readership, a ten-thousand-times bigger readership.

GROSS: Well, John, thank you very much...

POWERS: Okay.

GROSS: ...for talking about the media this year. And I want to wish you happy holidays and a happy New Year.

POWERS: Well, thank you very much and happy holidays to all the listeners.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. He writes the blog �Absolute Powers� on vogue.com.

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