Memories can last forever. Americans of a certain age remember where they were when they heard the news that John F. Kennedy was dead, slain by an assassin. Most people remember watching Neil Armstrong take man’s first steps on the moon, and remember who they were with. The toppling of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, a date that lives in infamy with Dec. 7, 1941, is etched in the memory of everyone with a television set.
So where were you when you heard that Michael Sam had finally been drafted in the seventh round of the annual player draft by the National Football League? Mark it well. Time magazine says history will look back on it “as the moment professional sports changed forever.” Breaking the sodomy barrier “wasn’t just a football decision, it was history in the making.”
Mr. Sam, who is finishing his education at the University of Missouri, knows a lot more than how to sack a quarterback. He knows how to suck the last few kilobytes out of his 15 minutes of fame. For three days, the hype hucksters kept the world — or at least themselves — agog with the question of the age: Will they or won’t they draft the man who would be “the first openly gay player in the NFL”? The morning after “they” finally did, Mr. Sam got a bonus minute of celebrity, complaining that making him wait until the seventh-round selection was cruel and unusual punishment. “I should have gone in the third or fourth round.”
But once professional sports was changed forever, or at least until the world moved into the next cycle of what passes for news, the passionate pursuit of trash and trivia resumed briskly to other epochal events. The “investigative reporters” (not so long ago a newspaper reporter was an “investigator” by definition) have decamped to Twitter, where they distill the results of arduous and expensive investigations to 140 characters. This works out to about 10 to 15 words, which you might think is not very many, but any more than that would exhaust the attention span of many Internet readers. “News” has to become gossip merely to survive. It’s the way, as Michael Sam demonstrates, to extend “the life of the narrative.”
This has killed the traditional edited gossip column in Washington. Diana McLellan set the standard many news cycles ago with the “Ear,” first in the old Washington Star and then in The Washington Post and finally in The Washington Times. Wit as well as humor, that exceedingly rare combination, made it the morning’s first read for thousands.
But not everyone fishes successfully deep in the shallows, and can make a feast of the catch. “Gossip hasn’t gone away,” says Patrick Gavin, once a gossipmeister himself, in The Washington Post. “It’s gone mainstream.” Indeed, with the death of the crusty old city editor who wouldn’t let a reporter get by with much, gossip, often irresponsible, has drifted freely into serious news. The Internet, with its proliferation of “news” sites, spawns more reporters than sources, more writers than readers.
Now that it’s too late to do anything about it, there’s a dawning recognition in the media that it’s out of control, drowning in hype and hysteria for having killed privacy in America. Monica Lewinsky’s confessional in Vanity Fair, just in time to launch Hillary’s second presidential balloon, has prompted a search for villains among, in Tina Brown’s recollection, “the whole buzzing swarm” of “gossip-industry flesh flies, feasting on the entrails.” She blames the Drudge Report and Fox News, happily oblivious of her own reign as the destructive “queen of buzz,” blowing millions and millions of dollars in an attempt to patch up a cadaver at Newsweek magazine. Despite applying of a pound of rouge and a sack of plaster, she never could get it to walk.
Miss Brown and her like-minded liberal and left colleagues are despondent not that the media is banging out of control, but that it got out of their control. The conservatives get to shout now as loud as the liberals. “The ascendant media that looked down on [Matt Drudge] has been pretty much destroyed,” she writes in the Daily Beast. She grumbles that no one would have believed that the Graham family would no longer own The Washington Post, that the two “mighty” newsmagazines would be reduced to a shadow and a corpse, and “the juggernaut CNN” would be chasing Fox News.
Now that hype and hysteria has become the lingua franca of the age, Michael Sam, like everyone else in the tower of babble, whistles it fluently. You just put your lips together and blow.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.