n the mid-1980s, the insurgent national newspaper USA Today overhauled the postwar bond between newspaper and reader, anointing itself as the newsprint agent of a middle class national “we” whose habits and sentimental foibles it sought to satisfy by keeping things simple.
Once reserved for necktie editorials, the “we” suddenly got a set of Hawaiian shirts and jeans.
USA Today‘s foray into third-person plural chumminess was mocked by Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, beacons of a high-brow journalism created as an antidote to the growth of prewar propaganda and postwar public relations. That vision meant resisting the distracting temptations of writing in the first and third persons.
Time went even further. Its conservative founder, Henry Luce, considered bylines a threat to professional aloofness and unanimity of voice, which was in turn corrosive to nonpartisan credibility (Britain’s The Economist largely maintains this editorial committee tradition).
The New York Times (already an enemy to “funny pages”) hewed the same stitch, toning down headlines, avoiding large images, and refusing color images long after they became available. Photography was considered emotional and wasteful.
Early 20th-century Yellow Journalism had already shown the dangers of agitated bias. Monopoly publishers had used the “I” and “we” to further political aims. The rambunctious and accusatory Cold War (which followed World War II propaganda) made mainstream dispassion and its discipline all the more attractive.
Absolute objectivity, most American editors knew, was as unrealistic as pure democracy. But resisting the sentimental was feasible, with journalistic aptitude advertised as the sum of hard work, fact-checking and ensuring emotions were kept under wraps.
The introduction of a national “we” challenged this developing protocol. Not only did a popular voice seem friendlier and more approachable, it was unabashedly casual. USA Today was repeatedly charged with “dumbing down” journalism. Its endless supply of data “nuggets,” tightly-edited prose sound bites, lent the paper McPaper nickname.
In truth, mainstream resentment toward the “we” reflected fears that chit-chat chumminess, lubricated by television’s growing embrace of familiarity, could usher in a less varnished relationship between news gatherers and their easily-excited audience.
Gossip-hungry, heavy on briefs, disdainful of unnecessary syllables, USA Today foreshadowed not only a revolution in newspaper design but laid the groundwork for all social networking to come. It opened journalism to a pleasurable pre-emoticon, pre-twitter dimension closer to PR than disinterest, and less intellectually costly.
It’s no surprise that the pre-Internet vision of national chat pioneered by USA Today now endangers the newspaper that first promoted it. The print version, which made color a mainstay on global front pages, struggles to maintain both its readership and its bearings. The 20-year-old international edition was suspended last year.
By contrast, the “we” and the “I” are outsized. Gushy, diary-style prose spit via text or computer have ostracized aloofness.
Ironically, USA Today‘s effort to report America in a trimmer, more casual way was never as breezy enterprise as it seemed. Shaping a nugget, never mind sustaining the narrative of a news report, is harder than it looks.
Yet there’s a hidden price being paid for USA Today‘s beating back of the journalistic high-brow. Chumminess can demoralize as readily as elitism repels. Depending on the “we/I” side of current events creates an appetite for falsely personalized events to satisfy joy or grief in fast bulk, a mirror of PR-driven hyperbole that critical journalism took it upon itself to mute, lest expertness yield to 100 million shaggy dogs.
Mass media’s reflection of what the French call mœurs et coutumes, a society’s customs and manners, is now tainted by the populist “we” in a way neither USA Today nor its critics and rivals envisaged 20 years ago.
“Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we,'” wrote the author Mark Twain, chronically unhappy with posturing.
Little did he know that the citizenry could one day be the tapeworm.