Michael Wolff’s Just-Released Book is a Puzzler

The dust-jacket of Television is the New Television: the Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age describes Wolff as a man with unparalleled access to powerful figures in media and the book as something that will change the reader’s thinking. Moreover, it frames Wolff as an archly bitchy writer with enemies who would like nothing better than to see his vital organs recycled to serve the more deserving. 

None of this is the case.

The vast majority of Wolff’s writing is a sober and thoughtful (if limited and unsupported) account of the power dynamics in media at the moment.  It’s a useful snapshot of what’s happening right now, which reduced to tweet-length is “Print and digital media companies are all turning to video to create brand advertising-worthy products, but TV is hard to make on the cheap.”  This is not an insight that changes my thinking.

The book has mild flights of interesting speculation. For example, without sports digital media companies like Google or Facebook will never be able truly to compete with broadcast and cable companies, but the digital companies have neither the stomach to write the big checks nor the narrative skills to create the product the right way if they did.  However, I didn’t take a single note or make a single check mark in the margin as I was reading (rare for me). 

The occasional outbursts of temper — heralded on the back cover as one of the book’s guilty pleasures — are mean-spirited cheap shots rather than Oscar Wildean performances of acerbic wit.  Rather than a frightened editor red-lining a bad-manners manifesto to prevent riots, as I read the book I imagined a desperate editor pleading with Wolff to make it just a little bit more cruel, please, Michael, whereupon Wolff, with a fatigued eye roll, would throw in something nasty like adding a dash of salt to soup.

Nonetheless, if you work in the digital media industry, then you should read Wolff’s book immediately for two reasons.

First, old media people — who long for less-complicated days before the arrival of the internet with its staggering complexity (and, yes, these folks are still around and in positions of power) — will wave this book about with a dash of glee and a little Rumpelstiltskin dance.  The book panders to the vanity of television people in a way that should make the team at Merriam Webster update their definition of “sycophancy” with a new example.

Second, if you wait even a week the book will be less enjoyable because it will be dated.  Ben Jonson eulogized his pal Shakespeare by saying Shakespeare was not for an age but for all time.  Wolff’s book is of the moment— just the moment.  With each passing development — such as 1) when the government did not allow the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable or 2) Verizon’s acquisition of AOL, both of which happened as the book was already in press — the picture it paints of the media world becomes more stale.  This book will be on the remainder shelf soon, by which point it won’t be worth reading.

It’s a quick read, and one that pulls a bunch of things together neatly.  Anybody working at the collisions of video and the internet and advertising will find it handy. 

But it’s in the bubble, parochial and like that famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue ” New Yorker cover.  Wolff’s imagination of what is important lacks scope: the internet isn’t important in the history of our species because of what it does for media but because of how it empowers people to communicate with each other— even if what they talk about tends to be television. 

Speaking as a researcher, editor, and writer I have to end this note with frustration.  Wolff is a columnist, not a journalist.  He cites not a single source, gets not a single person on the record, and has not a single footnote directing the reader to where his many assertions can be supported.  Television is the New Television is a collection of long columns: occasionally insightful, informed by numberless conversations with figures in the community, and with a short half life.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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