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July 22, 2011, noon

A newspaper editor’s critique of Marshall McLuhan in 1969: “I find no generalities here that I am able to distill into editing particulars”

How one Miami newspaperman found the media theorist’s ideas about the news: not particularly useful.

This being McLuhan Week at the Lab, we’ve shared a couple essays looking back on the media theorist’s legacy. So it’s only appropriate that we dive into the Nieman Foundation archives to see how people were talking about Marshall McLuhan at the height of his fame and influence.

While the Lab is less than three years old, our sister publication Nieman Reports has been chronicling the world of journalism since 1947. And in 1969, it ran an essay (pdf) by Sylvan Meyer, then editor of the Miami News, looking at McLuhan from a newspaper editor’s perspective. The essay’s conceit is that its form is an internal memo from Meyer to his publisher, trying to suss out what McLuhan has to offer to the news business. (Meyer’s not much of a fan.) A few excerpts:

Though McLuhan doesn’t specifically articulate the point, what this says to me is that writing — print — confronts a generation oriented to the obvious, perhaps to communications by osmosis. Youngsters with this “low visual orientation” induced by TV will not grow up to be “between the lines” readers. In addition to the code signals we use in reporting, we also leave a great deal unsaid. We suggest and imply. We expect the reader to put two and two together and to fill in around the core of our reporting. In opinion columns, particularly, we rifle ideas to the insider and expect the outsider to understand us. The TV-oriented person won’t take the trouble. If we can’t expect him to learn how to read our writing, with a minimum of effort, we will have to find a new way of writing.

It is to the mass that the press is indispensable, he is careful to emphasize. The literateur, who thinks the typical European journalist is what a reporter should be, is “book-oriented” to McLuhan. This intellect has the illusion, McLuhan says, that newspapers would be better off without ads, as ads are commercial and as they expose us to advertiser pressure. McLuhan states what we have long known, that readers desire ads since ads are a form of news and information. But McLuhan does not concede another point that newspapermen make, that advertiser pressure, subtle or overt, simply is not a publishing consideration to an economically sound newspaper. The significant pressures on us, of course, are personal and not the least bit as obvious as either McLuhan or his esoteric literati seem to think. He does not provide us with enlarged understanding of our medium in this area.

Again and again McLuhan seems to say that content doesn’t matter, that the individual stories, the individual pictures and essays, are of little significance to our total impact on the reader. He seems to be saying that the reader’s response (in the newspaper’s case, not the reader’s involvement because we are too “hot” for that) is to the form, shape, feel, smell, crazy quilt of the product itself; to its place in the culture and to its historicity, not to what the print says. It is somewhat beyond my reach as an involved editor to resolve tha t McLuhan is saying, even in the abstract, that whether we pr int good or bad, well-written material or illiterate, sloppily inked or clear and sharp as a tack makes no difference whatever. Yet he says emphatically that content has little to do with the “power” of the medium on the mass mind; that the medium itself is the power, not what the medium contains. Can he be saying that any newspaper, “good” or “bad,” has the same power as any other to involve its readers in their community, to evoke reaction from them or to help them understand the changes around them? I find no generalities here that I am able to distill into editing particulars.

It’s a terrific historical document. Go check out the PDF, and thanks to Nieman Reports’ Jonathan Seitz for pointing it out.

POSTED     July 22, 2011, noon
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