Slate's Press Box: 'Boomers' Losing Grip on Media

For decades, members of the baby boom generation have dominated much of the media. References to their favorite movies, TV shows and albums are sprinkled liberally through all forms of news coverage. But Slate media critic Jack Shafer has found signs that the media may be slipping from the boomers' grip.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In 1977, a young writer for the Austin American-Statesman penned this headline in reference to a long drought.

Unidentified Man: Sunshine, Blue Skies, Please Go Away.

BRAND: Older folks didn't get the reference, but baby boomers knew it was a line from The Temptations hit "I Wish It Would Rain." That marked a turning point. The baby boomers had begun to insert their generation's cultural messages into the mainstream media. Slate's Jack Shafer has written about the boomers' influence on the media. He's now anticipating their decline and he joined us to talk about it.

JACK SHAFER (Slate): I think we can say about 1979, 1980 there were enough boomers in positions of editorial responsibility where the boomer generation's cultural references became central to practically everything, including headlines.

BRAND: So you're looking at the demographics and thinking, `Well, this can't last forever.' And there will be another generational change and so you asked colleagues and readers to give some examples of when we'll know that that change has come into being.

SHAFER: The trouble with boomers is that they're an incredibly pandering lot and they'll hold on to every last vestige of power that they possibly can and so what they've done instead, I think, is co-opted a lot of post-boomer references and called them their own. Many sitcoms such as "Seinfeld," which probably really belong more to a post-boom generation, they've absorbed. But whenever boomers hear headlines about certain kinds of video games, they'll scratch their head and not really get the references. One of the things the post-boomer generation has been able to do because of video cassettes and DVDs is watch their favorite movies hundreds and hundreds of times, so that I think they'll plumb such post-boomer classics as "The Breakfast Club," "Home Alone," "Ferris Bueller" for really what seem to boomers as arcane references, but to post-boomers will be, you know, capturing the essence of their youth the way that maybe "Louie, Louie" did for mine.

BRAND: So give us some examples of what your colleagues and readers sent in.

SHAFER: One reader said that for a future article about PT-141, the new nasal spray aphrodisiac, the suggested headline was My Chemical Romance. Do you get the reference?

BRAND: No, I don't.

SHAFER: It's a band.

BRAND: OK.

SHAFER: For a review of Maureen Dowd's book, "Are Men Necessary?", the headline would be All The Things She Said. Do you get the reference?

BRAND: No.

SHAFER: It's a title to the song by the faux lesbian Russian pop group TATU.

BRAND: Oh, I know them. Yeah. Yeah. OK.

SHAFER: OK. One of the most popular headlines submitted by readers was the phrase, `All your base are belong to us.' Did you get that one?

BRAND: Now I know that one. I do know that one.

SHAFER: How did you know that one?

BRAND: Some aging near boomer sent it to me in an e-mail a couple of years ago.

SHAFER: And you want to describe for listeners what it is?

BRAND: It's a video game, and almost a cultural touch point, right?

SHAFER: And what video game isn't?

BRAND: Oh, well, God, I don't know, some video game.

SHAFER: The Imposter, The Imposter.

BRAND: No idea. Something I've never played.

SHAFER: The game is Zero Wing.

BRAND: OK. Well, I sort of got one out of the three, and I'm not even a boomer. That's kind of sad. I guess the question to take away from this is how will we know if the boomers have ceded control, because as you say, they're very canny and very savvy in terms of taking over what other people are saying?

SHAFER: They will go kicking and screaming and they'll probably school themselves as best they can in post-boomer culture. I think that they'll basically have to die off. You'll probably see--What? The earliest boomers are turning 60 next year. So I probably wouldn't predict that this will really accelerate for maybe another five or 10 years.

BRAND: Jack, you keep saying `they.'

SHAFER: I do. I'm a man of no generation.

BRAND: (Laughs) OK. We'll leave it at that then.

Jack Shafer is the press critic for the online magazine Slate. His articles about what he calls the new power generation are at slate.com. Thanks, Jack.

SHAFER: Thank you.

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