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Written Words and the Words of the Future

Spring / Summer 2011 Tête À Tête

Written Words and the Words of the Future

Written wordGB talks broadsheets, Facebook and even Twitter with legendary newspaper man Conrad Black

GB: Is print dead the world over?

Black: No, not dead. It is commercially beleaguered because of fragmentation of the market, but there is still a huge body of opinion that prefers to read something on paper – and it is not just elderly traditionalists like myself. It gets even to younger people. So no, print is not dead. But competition and variety have certainly impinged on it.

GB: What is the future of the newspaper as a medium?

Black: I think that the newspaper as we have known it is basically going to maintain more of a printed format than is widely thought. What you will get is an elaboration of home printing devices. Newspaper subscribers will subscribe to a famous title like the New York Times or a title that has a great deal of goodwill in the trademark, as well as credibility in its editorial function. A subscriber will say that he or she wants particular emphasis on, say, the financial news or on the activities in, say, the Republican Party in the US. The newspaper will operate a 24-hour news channel, steadily updated on the Internet. From time to time – as the subscriber wishes or by prearranged decision – the publisher will fax him or her the newspaper; however, the paper will come out of a printer that has a ‘newspaper-like’ format – rather than a full-sized broadsheet newspaper page. There will also be a straight printed edition for commuters.

Print will survive, and some of the great newspaper names will endure because, in an Internet world, there are very few Internet sites that are real draws. But a site calling itself the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal could be such a draw. I think that reading remains a relatively high-end activity – even on a screen.

GB: Is there a particular political, social or cultural importance still attached to the print medium?

Black: To answer that intelligently would frankly require more research than I have done. But again, I think that people over the age of 40 probably have a bias in favour of reading on a page, rather than on a screen. Beyond that, however, depending on the kind of publication in question, there is a greater credibility to something that is actually tangible. This does not apply so much to a recitation of breaking news as it does to interpretative things, or to more reflective comments or analyses. If you are reading a 5,000-word essay on the Middle East or something related, it is generally thought to be much more powerful and palatable if the essay is printed than if it is available to you only on the screen.

The fact is that the flow of information and entertainment is now so overwhelming that if you had only five hours of sleep a day, and spent the other 19 hours poring through everything that was available to read and to watch, you would certainly not get it all. So as choice becomes more and more overwhelming, the editorial function becomes more and more important.

GB: Do you despair of the hyperactivity or intensity of the rise of social media and the possible displacement of print and its historical role in political life?

Black: I do not despair. I have a related reaction, which is to ignore it. I absolutely refuse to have anything to do with any of it. Twitter and Facebook and all that – I would have no idea how to connect to it, and I will not do it. It is an outright boycott. I admit that this is a reactionary response, but I am afraid that if I got into that sort of thing, then there would be no end to it! A relative of mine – if he goes out to a restaurant, he announces it to the world via social media. Ten times a day, it is: “I’m going to the bookstore. I’m going to the baseball game.” Who cares? What on Earth have we done here?

GB: What do you think this says about where the world is going – politically and geopolitically?

Black: Ninety percent of communications today are completely superfluous. We obviously must have freedom of expression, but the contemplative life, I suspect, is gradually becoming more tempting. In the end, this is the social equivalent of the velocity of money in economic terms, where we are getting more and more communication, but not really more content – or not appreciably more content. I suppose that this increased communication gives a greater sense of participation and self-importance to a great many people, but, as I say, I simply cannot face it. Having said this, I must admit that these new media are very helpful in oppressive societies like Iran and in the Arab world. I would be remiss if I did not say that. They have evidently been very helpful in organizing protest groups in these despotic countries.

GB: What is the impact of this new-century mix of print and social media on political rhetoric?

Black: That is an interesting question. My first response is that this new mix tends to condense rhetoric, such that we are getting into a kind of sound-bite politics – a politics that is at the other end of the spectrum from the days of the six-hour debates between Lincoln and Douglas as public entertainment. Where those debates were too lengthy, today’s debates are not lengthy enough to really reveal much, or to challenge us intellectually. I keep hoping that public taste will require – and that the free market will provide – alternatives that make the most of these things without trivializing or vulgarizing them too much. I imagine that this will be the case.

GB: Who are the political actors or leaders in this early new century who impress you?

Black: If we could go back a little farther, I thought Reagan was tremendously effective. Thatcher had the genius of the phrase, too, and she was very effective. I guess Tony Blair was pretty good – in some ways – and so was Bill Clinton; both communicated well. I think Obama’s techniques are clearly very proficient, but he is running a serious danger of being faux eloquent. He is facile and fluent, but there are real problems with content at times. The just-retired president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, was very effective in mobilizing his followers – and I do not mean in a rabble-rousing way. He had such a phase of rabble-rousing earlier on, but he was on the whole a very capable president, and in general a man of moderation. Benjamin Netanyahu is, in English and I understand also in Hebrew, a formidable speaker. And so is Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine.

GB: Is there a confluence of views or general agreement across the nations or continents about the identity and nature of the key ideas in this early 21st century? Or is there too much of cacophony out there – partly driven by the intensity of new and old media – for a narrative to have yet been developed?

Black: Things are a little more coherent than that. It always comes down to the best economic model, and then you get obviously straight social questions on top of this model, as well as the strategic element – that is, what you are trying to accomplish with your foreign policy. Certainly, the hugely amplified accessibility of communications devices – as you say, the cacophony – makes it harder to extract or distil the real subject of discussion. However, this subject is still there if you can slog through the cacophony.

In the US, for instance, I have been astounded at the tardiness and sluggishness with which American public life has been coming to grips with the problem of the country spending more than it has. The US, which must have the most sophisticated discussion of public policy of any country in the world (notwithstanding a lot of superficial nonsense, of course) simply seems to be incapable of getting its political class to focus on the national deficit and debt problem. I just find this astounding. I am being a little America-centric here, but this same American political class could not cope with immigration; it could not cope with abortion – which it fumbled into the lap of the judiciary – and it has not really coped with the whole controversy of disparity and distribution of wealth. Again, I want to be clear that I think that a great deal of what is uttered on all of these subjects is nonsense, but that is not the point. All of these are important public issues, and the legislators and the administrations of the country have essentially ducked all of them. This is evidently not what you elect and pay legislators and leaders of governments to do – and if it is a practice that is carried on long enough, then it ramifies very unfavourably in the public life and morale of the country.

GB: Do you think that the act of writing still has a ‘revolutionary’ quality to it in the 21st century?

Black: I do, and I think that it can – not just in intellectual circles, but also in popular circles. You are, of course, referring to Thomas Paine and people like that; or even Jefferson – even if old-style pamphleteering is perhaps dead.

GB: Is there a change in our understanding of literacy?

Black: Literacy in all senses is generally in decline because of the standards of public education in most countries. I have done a bit of teaching in the past few years with relatively disadvantaged people. They all claim to have got to Grade 9 or 10 in the US, but most of them could not write a sentence; they could not add a column of figures. They came along quickly; that is, there was nothing wrong with their basic intelligence – and it is not that I am such a genius as a tutor. Still, I am afraid that standards of state education systems in major Western countries in low-income areas have deteriorated terribly. I almost had the impression that when I was in school – and I went to generally higher-income level schools – even people from poorer areas universally knew the three Rs. Everybody knew how to write a sentence, and to add and subtract and multiply and divide. I do not think that this is the case anymore. And everybody knew basic history. Again, I do not know that this is the case anymore, and I do not have any confidence that it is. This is a phenomenon in the whole field of education, and I suspect that the teachers’ unions in one country and another have played a baneful role in this. Basic standards have deteriorated – and certainly in the US, by a proper measurement of literacy, things have deteriorated markedly. This is quite worrisome. And this is not a function of money, for the concentration of resources devoted to education is immense. Rather, we are not getting value for money.

GB: Have new media changed our understanding of, or the very nature of, political ideologies?

Black: I do not think so. It is more likely that they have made political packaging more multi-dimensional. As late as Louis St. Laurent in Canada, or Coolidge and Hoover in the US, elections were about 20 speeches not attended by more than 15,000 people or so in person, with the rest being comments about programmes and qualifications. Roosevelt used the radio and newsfilm that ran ahead of feature films in the cinema every week. This was a bit of a sound-bite at the time, but after 1932, his election campaigns were only about 10 speeches – albeit often to live audiences of more than 100,000, and radio audiences of tens of millions. Three million people – half of the population of New York City – stood in the cold rain, 50-deep, to see Roosevelt go by at 20 miles per hour in an open car on October 21st, 1944. And 7.5 million people came out to greet General MacArthur in New York when he returned from Korea in 1951. Roosevelt gave the ‘Quarantine’ speech in Chicago to a live audience of 700,000 in October of 1937. This was before television.

Today, no one will walk across the street to see the president of the US. I have seen the last nine presidents moving around New York – starting with LBJ – and their motorcades are just a nuisance, even to people who vote for them. I think that curiosity about the holders of great offices remains, but those who are often on television have transferred their magnetism to electronic media – unlike, for instance, the pope who, for a variety of reasons too obvious to mention, often pulls gigantic crowds, and has done so for centuries. Pageantry, as with papal funerals or a British royal wedding, will pull a crowd, as these events are rare and epochal and unique, and magnificently conducted. But at the risk of sounding like Marshall McLuhan, personalities, panache and showmanship have usurped some of the former roles of policy and ideology. Still, people will not vote for a candidate whose policies they do not like – no matter how great a showman he is. This is as true of Ségolène Royal – a bright, sexy woman who showed some thigh and cleavage, but who was rejected as the socialist presidential candidate in France in 2007 – as it was of William Jennings Bryan – hypnotic public speaker, but thrice rejected as US president.

GB: How does one make intelligent political arguments in an era of laconic communications and short attention spans?

Black: Use punch-phrases, and be witty. Margaret Thatcher, during the debate over deployment of Euro-missiles, when asked whether she was for a nuclear-free Europe, responded at once: “I’m for a war-free Europe.” And when asked about sanctions on South Africa, she said: “Apartheid is an evil and repulsive system, but you will not make things better by making them worse.” When asked about a current burning issue, President Reagan replied: “I’ve had a lot of sleepless afternoons over it.” When asked what he thought of revenge, at a press conference, FDR said: “I’m for it.” Insofar as these new media carve up the market so much that they discourage loquacity, they are a good thing. And it was always so. Edward Everett, who spoke ahead of President Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, wrote him the day after, on November 20th, 1863: “I wish I had summed up as well in two hours what you did in two minutes.” As both Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson – I believe – pointed out, it takes more time to write a short letter than a long one.

GB: How important will the English language be in newspapers and in media at large in 20 years’ time?

Black: Overwhelmingly important. It remains the only growing language. None of the other European languages belong to demographically growing nationalities and, apart from Spanish, Portuguese and, to a slight degree, French, none has any large body of overseas co-lingualists. The Chinese language is exceedingly complicated and slow, and 900 million Chinese still live as they did 3,000 years ago. As economic growth and prosperity spread in India, so will English, as it will in those parts of the Middle East and Africa where their elites speak English and governance improves. Spanish and Portuguese will track the Latin American birth rate, but all Latin immigrants to the US will eventually assimilate to the majority culture. China has an enforced declining birth rate, and it will not export its language very far.


Conrad Black is a historian, columnist and former publisher of the British Telegraph newspapers, the National Post – which he founded – and many others. He is a biographer of Maurice Duplessis, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon.

(Photograph: Canadian Press / Tom Hanson)

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