Back in the ancient 70s media guru Marshall McLuhan said something to me about a newspaper strike – “of course the newspapers are on strike – they’re obsolete!”
Like many of McLuhan’s pronouncements, this makes even more sense the more you consider it. Media that are booming, or on any kind of upswing, are not struck by strikes. Their workers are happy to be part of a winning operation that gives them prestige and job security.
But once a medium starts going downhill, everything begins to change. Every problem becomes a crisis, an occasion for deep soul-searching.
Which brings us to the other end of the Imus affair – how the media, not just MSNBC and CBS, but all the media, are playing this. Why is it such a hot, soul-wrenching story?
Because it connects to the decline and fall of mass news and talk-show media.
MSNBC is in third place in 24/7 cable news. Getting rid of Imus - one of their few successes in the ratings - was the last thing they wanted to do. But the real aggravation for MSNBC is that they still do not know how to succeed in this new media world.
In some ways CBS is even worse. Once the gold standard of network evening news, the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric has fallen to a distant third in a shrinking field. Viacom embraces new media by threatening to sue YouTube for doing the favor of hosting its videos.
These are the deep currents that have led to so much angst in the television and radio news media about Imus. Not concern, really, about what he said. But concern about their own future.
Imus was easily addressed. Not so easy will be figuring out how to save the mass media. Their decline and fall looks all but irreversible.