Year of the Blockhead

We're dumbing down and it's the new media's fault

As I look back happily on 2006, the year Bay Area residents were taken for fools, I notice changes that sort of crept up on me.

Early last week I was up until 11 p.m. browsing for grainy videos of college drum-and-bugle performances on YouTube. I don't know why; I know nothing of drum-and-bugle corps. I just know that I had to.

This summer my last newspaper subscription expired. My reading has narrowed to random browsing of the aforementioned sort and European bike racing news. My intellectual panorama seems to narrow by the month, something I hadn't noticed until now, in the waning days of the year of the blockhead.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back during the last dot-com boom, the smart money took ordinary schlubs like myself for geniuses, with time and initiative to read reams of news, appreciate risky, elegant writing, view cutting-edge graphics and experimental animation, and absorb mountains of other material at least aspiring to the aforementioned qualities. Web sites like the brilliant Wired magazine-owned satire magazine Suck.com or Derek Powazek's Fray.com, a sort of personal-storytelling version of Ira Glass' This American Life, begat myriad Web-based literary efforts, some backed with real money.

By 1999, San Francisco became a modern version of the 1920s Paris Left Bank, where writers and artists and designers, and animators and musicians, flocked to the city for well-paying media jobs. Locals became furious at the influx, and did what they could to chase them away with the "dot-com backlash."

That's all ended in 2000.

But dot-com offices are filling up again with tech workers. I saw two through a SOMA office-loft window playing foosball just a couple weeks ago. Their firm, like the others, is not staffed by creatives; it's involved in ironing out the technical details of making money on the Web, in this case streamlining the collection of Internet-based sales leads.

The smart money won't be fooled again. Instead, it's taking us for fools. And we seem perfectly happy about it.

As newspaper advertising slides to Craigslist.org, Bay Area news operations are gutted with waves of incremental layoffs, until daily newspapers are barely interesting enough to read anymore. Powazek stopped updating Fray.com last year. Google just paid $1.65 billion for grainy-video-purveying YouTube.

In the latest such slight to our collective life of the mind, in January, local Spanish language station KSTS plans on gutting its local news operations. The move comes a few months after KSTS' corporate parent NBC/Telemundo announced it would fortify its ability to show soap operas on the Internet by allying with Yahoo.com.

A couple of weeks ago a local politician held a press conference denouncing KSTS' move. The S.F. Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution complaining about it. Neither events showed up in our local English-language daily newspapers or Web sites; there were no 1999 dot-com-backlash-style protests.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd check in with the sponsor of this fizzled anti-dumbing-down protest movement, Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval.


Many evenings after his children go to bed, Sandoval clicks on local Spanish-language news broadcasts recorded on his TiVo machine.

This practice has nothing to do with the language of the broadcast; Sandoval's English comprehension is perfect. Nor is he trying to brush up on his Spanish. Rather, he's adopted the habit of watching local news directed at Latinos, because local news teams for KSTS and KDTV have typically uncovered vital stories English-language stations overlook.

"You'll see a story about violence in the city of Richmond, California. They have a completely different take on that. The violence that affects the Bayview is often thought of as solely African-American, but there's a very, very large and growing Hispanic population in the Bayview, and that's covered more by local Spanish-language TV," Sandoval says.

Sandoval's habit is about to become somewhat less rewarding.

KSTS, the Bay Area's Telemundo station, owned by NBC, a subsidiary of General Electric, plans on gutting its local news operation, shifting news production to a central news desk in Fort Worth, Texas, according to reports. A five-person Bay Area bureau will replace Telemundo's local news operation.

An assistant to KSTS General Manager Alberto Martinez told me that he would not be in the office until after my weekly deadline. But she sent me a statement in which Martinez did not specifically contradict reports in papers such as the Mercury News, and San Francisco's El Tecolote describing local news cutbacks. Instead, he suggested such a move would be all for the best.

"Digital science is transforming our industry enabling us to operate more efficiently while rendering current ways obsolete," Martinez explained. "We are, in fact, implementing a forward-thinking way to deliver local news in a rapidly changing media environment, without sacrificing quality content."

NBC-Telemundo is indeed forward-thinking in the sense that the company appears in tune with the zeitgeist of 2006, in which the sophistication and attention-grabbing quality of news has declined with repeated rounds of cost-cutting and layoffs, while the quantity and sophisticated delivery of garbage entertainment has raced ahead.

Sandoval, along with other California Latino politicians, plan on petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to pressure NBC/Telemundo, based on the idea that the company is forgoing the civic responsibilities that accompany public use of airwaves.

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