West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 13 | Aug. 29- Sep.04, 2007

Talking Point

Johnny, the Journal and the decline of civilization

By Daniel Meltzer

Blame it on Johnny.

The ground shifted beneath our feet and our popular culture seemed to tumble out of its bunk when Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show” moved to Burbank in 1972, cashing in edgy New York hip for laid-back L.A. cool.

Whither the wit of Jack Paar and Oscar Levant, Steve Allen, Groucho or George Burns? Today even Letterman, who does work here, lives in a suburb, away from Manhattan where “hip” has been replaced by “hip-hop.”

Seventy-seven Sunset Strip was one thing. Talk show guests in Hawaiian shirts in January are something else. People who can go to the beach 365 days a year and do not have to ride the I.R.T. or deal with sleet and slush know bupkis from dark humor, which is the only kind that really matters east of Austin. 

The ascent of second-tier movie star Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 accelerated the decline. Hollywood macho bluster, shoot-from-the-hip politics, unenlightened self-interest, mall and sprawl, supply-side economics (the government looks out for business, and business — your health insurance company, for example — supposedly looks out for you), “cute” newscasters, graphic novels and personal-music-player addiction have buried existential angst, healthy skepticism, jazz, Broadway, literature and thinking. The graphic novel is nothing new. We used to call them Classic Comics. Feel good; trust in God; support your president if it kills you (which it might); don’t trust disloyal journalists, unless they work for Rupert Murdoch.

The audacious Aussie has bundled 5 billion from his News Corp.’s petty cash drawer to buy the Dow Jones Company and all its publications, including the boomer bible, The Wall Street Journal. There is, they have told us, an agreement for Murdoch not to tamper with the paper’s news content. Tell the new restaurant owner that he can’t change the menu. The L.A. Times reported last week that Murdoch has already put in his 2 million cents by personally convincing several reporters not to quit. We wonder what the Journal’s Page Six will look like a few years from now, or how it will “objectively” report politics or business news here, or in China for that matter, where Murdoch is heavily invested, and where he lets Beijing censor his Fox-casts.

The tsunamis from Murdoch’s tabloid New York Post and his flag-waving, right-raving Fox Channel have already washed ashore and threaten to bring its chief competitor, Mort Zuckerman’s Daily News, downstream with it, not to mention all the competing broadcast and cable news providers who hunger for ratings now that nobody will leak to them any more after Plamegate.

How will the changing of the guard affect content at the Journal, which wasn’t losing money, just not making enough to satisfy stock traders who make their livings (or killings) buying and selling and buying and selling shares?

Murdoch gave a talk at major university here when he first arrived in New York some years ago to take command at the Post and to steward his growing News Corp. (Should that read “News Corpse” considering the effect it’s had on journalism here?) Noticeably tipsy when he strode onto the stage that evening, he had no prepared text, but he was very pleased to tell the assembled students (many deeply in hock to pay their tuitions) how much he enjoyed being able to step out of his multimillion-dollar condominium at any hour and stroll the great avenues of Midtown with his wife to window-shop.

Perhaps the Journal will thrive and prosper under Murdoch. Perhaps he will keep his hands off the news copy. Perhaps we will not see topless hotties cavorting on Page 3, or be subtly (or not so subtly) reminded regularly about the glorious economic miracle that is Beijing, while American workers and families continue to wait for decent affordable healthcare.

Maybe Letterman will move to Hell’s Kitchen and walk to work. Perhaps Jay Leno will settle in Washington Heights and ride the A train. Perhaps pigs will fly and the sun itself will resist the temptation and continue to rise in the east.

Play the horses. The odds are better.

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