Media elite? What media elite?

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NYC role more fable than fact

The New York media elite. You know them. I know them. Lelyveld of The Times. Rather, Brokaw and Jennings of the network newscasts. Brown, Newhouse, Pearlstine, Carter of the newsstands. Charlie Rose, their portal. They control what America sees, reads, hears. Their power exceeds that of Presidents and CEOs.


Okay, okay. I'm being contrarian. But with a purpose. I think the concept of a "New York Media Elite" (hereafter NYME) is one of those hoary constructs that defies the reality of the marketplace.

Why am I treading on this aged conceit? Victor Navasky and David Laventhol (elites if the term has meaning) are team-teaching a course on the NYME at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism (the longtime nursery of the elite). Their premise: They live. My role: guest speaker on advertisers' presence among this potent clan. My response: If there was a NYME, it's dying; ad agencies and their leaders have less of an active presence in this rarefied company than ever; and New York itself is losing whatever primacy it once held.

Here is my argument: By the 1960s, news existed in a relatively well-defined value chain--validated by The New York Times; picked up by the newsweeklies and network newscasts; grabbed by local newspapers and TV stations, and communicated thusly from the select to the masses. So yes, there was a period when power over communications consolidated in New York, and there indeed was a powerful elite.

But as new technologies fragment the audience and media outlets, the influence of individuals over this process and its content has waned, even if a few companies still own a disproportionate percentage of the major outlets. Even Rupert Murdoch, whose conservative sympathies are widely programmed in the New York Post and the New York-based Fox News Channel, has little choice but to lend air to the subversive works of Matt Groening in order to attract an audience. Thus my ultimate argument: With technology-driven fragmentation, the demos ultimately does rule.

Mr. Laventhol, the crusading journalist who transformed Newsday from a suburban afterthought to a national treasure, objected. How can you say the NYME have no power? Look at the influence wielded in the fashion industry by Anna Wintour at Vogue and Kate Betts at Harper's Bazaar. Fuhgeddaboudit, I responded; they haven't a fraction of the power carried by Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland decades ago. The era is long past when fashion editors could dictate fashion. Today, their successors are largely adjunct factota of the marketing industry.

Aha, said Mr. Navasky, my first professional mentor and the longtime leader of the left weekly The Nation, so advertisers do hold the power! Sure, in a field that's consolidated the way the fashion industry has, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have more sway than the bra and girdle makers whose ads once filled The New York Times Magazine.

But it's contextual influence; they help paint the broad landscape of consumer culture. It's not a new phenomenon, nor is there a geographic center. Some 20 years ago, in his book "Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion," sociologist Michael Schudson posited that advertising served as "capitalist realist art," inuring society to a set of assumptions that encouraged certain types of behavior. But Schudson dismissed as overblown any specific power beyond that.

So, too, with today's NYME. They--if they exist--are consumed by national politics. The public, alas, could not care less. They put Matthew McConnaughey on covers. The audience can't spell the name--and apparently doesn't want to.

Power? Please. Today, the NYME are not leading anything. They are responding to sly humor from The Onion in Madison, Wis.; to politics-and-sex dished out by Salon in San Francisco; to clannish gossip, assembled by Romenesko in Minnesota; to Hollywood box scores, tallied by in Austin, Texas; to TV And Those who say otherwise--apologies, Victor, David and Columbia--are eliting you down the garden path.

Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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