Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Louis Who?

NOTE: This was originally composed for a teenage audience: the readership of the high school paper I was sponsoring last year. In twelve years as a student newspaper sponsor I never took the prerogative to publish any of my own writing, but for my last issue ever, I thought "What the hell!"

Louis Rukeyser is dead.

He passed away May 2, at the age of 73.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Though he was famous in certain circles, there’s really no reason you should have heard of him. He was a minor celebrity of another generation.

I wasn’t much of a fan, either, but news of his death saddened me because I remembered the date my father regularly kept with Louis Rukeyser in the late 1970’s. Friday night, 8:30, PBS. Wall $treet Week.

The thirty minute show had only two segments. It began with a witty Ruykeser monologue on the major business stories of the week. Ruykeser’s obituaries describe these monologues as "crafted gems of wry commentary." They were, and he delivered them with a charming smirk, seemingly fueled by martinis. The rest of the show was a Rukeyser-led panel discussion with leaders in the investment community. The set made it look like the discussion was happening in an exclusive club. The only thing missing was cigar smoke. With coaxing from Rukeyser, his hyper-informed guests delivered sober-sounding insights about business and investments.

Why Pop loved this show is a mystery. He wasn’t a businessman or an investor. I’m certain he didn’t care for Rukeyeser’s politics. But there was something about Wall $treet Week that appealed to him. I like to think it was the show’s intelligence.

But there is another, less-charitable explanation: Pop watched Louis Rukeyser because he was there. It was Friday night, Pop was going to watch some TV, and Rukeyser was the least-dreadful of the few choices he had. These were the days before the cable explosion. Where we lived there were four channels. One baseball game a week. Cartoons on Saturday morning only. World news on three networks, but strictly at 7:00 p.m.

But between the cable explosion and the rise of the internet, the media environment has changed dramatically in just a generation. Where once there was scarcity, now there is plenty. All the baseball, cartoons, and world news you could ever want. Is Nepal still in chaos? I’ll just access the web page of the Himalayan Times and get the story straight from Kathmandu. Internet political bloggers expose the lies in political speeches before the speaker boards his flight for home. What Louis Rukeyser used to do for a half hour on Fridays we now have entire networks doing 24-7.

On balance, the wider availability of information and greater diversity of media outlets is a positive development. At times I might get nostalgic for the world of four channels on TV and a fresh newspaper in the driveway, but in the end I love having 60 channels and visiting 20 or 30 dot coms every day. I’m not going back, and neither is anybody else.

But this decentralizing of the news, the toppling of the so-called "old media," has a negative side that we ought to recognize.

Some have complained that this media fragmentation has contributed to our political polarization. If it seems that Democrats and Republicans are living on different planets (particularly with respect to the merits of President Bush), perhaps it is because of the way they get their information. If people can customize their news consumption – that is, if liberals get their news exclusively from liberal sources, conservatives from conservative sources – then they bring to their debates not just differing philosophies but differing versions of reality.

But where the new media environment is concerned, I’m less troubled about its consequences for politics than I am about its consequences for teenagers. Media abundance has, ironically, deprived teenagers of something important.

If my father was trapped with Louis Rukeyser on Friday nights in 1978, so was I. Because of the scarcity of media designed exclusively for teenagers I found myself getting gradually introduced to the adult world through television, movies, newspapers, and books that had been designed for people of my parents’ generation. I didn’t know it was happening. I just read Time and the Atlanta Constitution like my parents, watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and The Deer Hunter like my parents.

At times these excursions into the media environment of grownups were excruciating, like those social occasions where I was the only fifteen-year-old in a room full of people in their forties, having to listen to their boring conversations about forced busing and the energy crisis and the Soviet threat. Sometimes I hated it. But all the while I was being drawn out of my adolescent cocoon into a world of concerns beyond my own.

No, watching my father’s TV shows did not make me into a mature person (ask anyone who knew me when I was 15, or when I was 30, for that matter), but it helped. And none of this is meant to suggest that there was no youth culture in 1978 (then, as now, there was a flourishing youth culture in the world of popular music). Nor am I saying that the sprawling youth culture of today has eclipsed all ways of getting initiated into the media environment of grownups. But things are different now. Today there are countless media sources that cater exclusively to the sensibilities of teenagers. As such, teenagers now are less likely than teenagers once were to read what their parents read and watch what their parents watch. Between MySpace and American Pie and MTV and the O.C. and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, teenagers of today can enjoy a "have it your way" media feast without ever experiencing something created for people who are 30, 40, or 50.

Again, it is no surprise and no shame if you’ve never heard of Louis Rukeyser. He was of another time.

The trouble is, if he were to come along now, you probably would never hear of him either.

1 comment:

Knox Porter said...

Thanks for remembering Louis, for I too spent countless Friday nights as if I were in his executive club. Thanks for remembering another time, the brief epoch when all of America viewed the same mass media. Perhaps this country was stronger when most viewed the same information and entertainment outlets. Perhaps we were more informed when, without entertainment competition, we were forced to watch the news at 7:00.