I just heard Jens Jessen, editor of the Feuilleton (arts & culture section) of the German weekly Die Zeit, being interviewed on Deutschlandradio Kultur (g). He was talking about how the Internet is changing the news business, the subject of the lead piece in this week’s Feuilleton (whose title — is "237 Reasons to Have Sex", mocks Internet features that force reader to click single picture after single picture to generate more "page impressions," as they’re called in Denglish).
Contrary to some editors’ expectations, Jessen said, online articles about difficult subjects often do get just as many clicks as news about Paris Hilton’s latest derailment: "Of course, the public is stupid (blöd)," Jessen said, "but it’s not as bad as some editors think." (rough quote from memory). The interviewer jokingly warned Jessen that he was going to write that quote down, which made Jessen chuckle.
Here are two possible reactions to Jessen’s remark:
Reaction #1. (The typical American and English reaction). Horror at the snobbery and condescension. Does Jessen really think he and his friends are so bloody superior to everyone else? This is the key flaw of the European press: its cliquishness and insularity. If you think the majority of your fellow citizens are idiots, you’re hardly going to listen to their complaints or suggestions. You’re going to pay attention exclusively to what’s being said and thought in your tiny circle of well-educated haute bourgeois urbanite friends, and that will lead to navel-gazing and stagnation. And it’s not just journalism that suffers from this elitism. Even Jeremy Rifkin — that tireless American cheerleader for European social policies — is horrified by the open snobbery he often encounters among EU officials. One good reason average Europeans believe that the Brussels elite distrusts them and ignores many of the things they care about them is that the Brussels elite — regardless of what they say at news conferences — does distrust them and ignores many of the things they care about. This can’t be good for European society.
Reaction #2. Jessen is the Feuilleton editor of Die Zeit, Germany’s most highbrow mainstream newspaper. It’s not his job to appeal to the masses or even enlighten them. And the Feuilleton of Die Zeit does what it’s supposed to do well, week in and week out. It’s ambitious but not too stuffy. And at least Jessen is honest. Americans pride themselves (often showily and self-aggrandizingly) on their ‘democratic values’ and lack of snobbery, but unpack this claim and you’ll find plenty of denial. As W. Somerset Maugham once said of America: "Of all the hokum with which this country is riddled the most odd is the common notion that it is free of class distinctions." American definitely has a class system, and there’s lots of horrid stuff being produced for those at the bottom of it. The only difference between an educated American and German is that the German will say that it’s garbage and that the people who consume it are idiots, while the American will only think this. And what’s more important: hurting the feelings of ordinary blue-collar citizens (who, anyway, aren’t listening to public radio), or actually designing a society in which they have a chance at a dignified existence and social advancement? Some of the most elitist Europeans also willingly pay social-welfare taxes that are astronomical by American standards. And finally, the history of the 20th century doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the wisdom and purity of the common folk, does it? Nor, for that matter does the 2004 American Presidential election, although with somewhat less disastrous consequences. And have you looked at a tabloid lately?
I think that about captures it, without tipping my hand. Any other possible reactions? What’s your reaction, esteemed readers?