Flame Posies

Katz on the Cross

The martyrdom of St. Jon of Cyberspace.

By Jack Shafer

Media critic Jon Katz has achieved the impossible: He’s recast some of America’s most fortunate sons and daughters as victims in a cultural civil war.

Critics are self-appointed, not made, and Katz is no exception. After a journeyman’s career as a reporter and editor at the WashingtonPost and several other big city dailies, he made his first electronic news as the executive producer of the CBSMorningNews in the late 1980s. There, he says, he “was run out of journalism” and turned free-lance media critic. His first (belated) taste of cyberspace came in 1991, when he connected to the WELL, the Bay Area bulletin-board system. “I’d come home,” he writes, and join the “raging debates about media, religion, politics, and the cyberculture.”

Plying his media-crit trade at Rolling Stone and New York, he eventually joined Wired and its Web sibling, HotWired, becoming “Media Rant” columnist on the Netizen channel in January 1996. He struck an instant pose as the Web’s troubadour and great defender, simultaneously promoting it to outsiders and protecting it from arrivistes like Slate, which launched five months later. The persona worked. He quickly became one of the Web’s signature voices, a Dave Garroway or Milton Berle who defined the nascent medium for most people–inside and outside Webworld. Brainy, quick to identify enemies and flame them, Katz indulged the clannishness of the Web pioneers who swarmed to the site. And they indulged him, answering and amplifying his provocations–call-and-response style–in threaded discussions linked to “Media Rant.”

Katz’s adopted constituency–Web surfers, hackers, rap artists, violent-film buffs, pint-sized Super Mario 64 champions, Web-porn peddlers, and TV-talk-show fans–make for unlikely victims. Who can shed tears for folk who are blessed with smarts, youth, leisure time, and moxie, and who own $2,000-plus Pentium computers? If any group has a right to consider itself vulnerable in these cybertimes, it’s America’s computer illiterates, who stand in awe of the Katz Corps.

But in Katz’s world, cybernauts are oppressed daily by “The Mediaphobes,” the old-media-worshipping, Judeo-Christian-ethics-preaching, backward-facing “windbags and pious souls who presume to know what is moral for you and your family.” They despise the fact that you now get your news directly from Usenet groups or chat rooms, untainted by effete journalists; they fume because today’s politicians speak directly to the people via Larry King Live and MTV; they are furious because kids play interactive Nintendo games instead of passively watching television cartoons.

Although Da Man may jam Ice T’s signal, he’s been extraordinarily good to Katz. The Old Media boys at Random House have just published his new book–Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits& Blockheads Like William Bennett–and the Old Media boys at the New York Times excerpted it in the Jan. 19 “Arts and Leisure” section.

“Their loss of control has been jarring to our traditional media and political organizations, who had sat astride a tight monopoly over politics and news,” Katz writes in Virtuous Reality. “They fought back and have been fighting ever since, complaining that these new interactive media are dangerous and destructive of public discourse. New media have brought with them enormous cultural displacement–the journalists, producers, publishers, editors, and academics who controlled most of our information flow have all been, to varying degrees, pushed aside. They don’t like it.”

Katz’s fury against the Mediaphobes is impressive; yet, only rarely does he name those conspiring to deny him and his cyberweeny buddies their maximum media liberty. (He insinuates on many pages that the Big Media suffer from Mediaphobia, but he mostly leaves them off the hook.) At the top of his short hate list resides popular scold William Bennett. Bennett’s books on “virtues” sell well. But how effective a censor is he? Well, he did succeed in coercing Time Warner into selling its interest in the gangsta-rap heavy Interscope label–only to see the label and its artists thrive under the patronage of its new co-owners MCA. Also infected with Mediaphobia is the opportunistic gang of legislators who passed the Communications Decency Act, knowing full well that the Supremes will overturn it. And don’t forget Tipper Gore. During her brief and brilliant mid-’80s career in rock ’n’ roll Comstockery, she convinced some labels to affix “voluntary” warning labels to mature material–a ratings system that many younger listeners embraced as a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Today, she’s a ribbon-cutting second lady who avoids controversy. Oh, and Time magazine cried wolf about the prevalence of porn on the Net.

Some cultural civil war.

If there is a cultural civil war going on, the Mediaphiles–led by Wall Street–have routed the ‘phobes. Big business has wagered hundreds of billions of dollars on the development of high-tech, low-cost media technology–broadband services, satellites, encryption technology, miniaturized computers and communications devices, you name it–that is largely impervious to the Bennetts and Gores of this world.

Katz’s war is won, but declaring victory and resting his vocal chords would mean giving up his career as the Jeremiah of cyberspace and finding a new hustle. Still, commercial calculation isn’t sufficient to explain his stand. He identifies so deeply with the victims he has invented, the aggrieved Internet comrades and the chastised Jerry Springer fans, that he’s become one of them. Lest one think I’m exaggerating Katz’s martyr complex, check out Virtuous Reality’s Chapter 7, in which he chronicles the life and times of another political rebel who embraced a new technology to speak truth to power and suffered greatly for it: Thomas Paine.

Katz-equals-Paine is an awful stretch, but his book invites the comparison. Actually, Katz better resembles that other iconoclastic 1990s media hacker, Ted Kaczynski, the alleged Unabomber. Not to imply that the Katz would threaten murder to get published in the Washington Post: To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t maimed or killed anyone except the characters in his “Suburban Detective Mystery” series–Death by Station Wagon, The Last Housewife, The Father’s Club, and The Family Stalker. But, like the Unabomber, Katz is driven frothy by a world that won’t conform to his expectations. Consider the parallels:

Ted Kaczynski brooded alone in his cabin, limiting his contact to the outside world to letters and books obtained through the interlibrary loan systems. He stands accused of authoring an impenetrable screed titled Industrial Society and Its Future, and of building bombs.

Jon Katz broods in the isolation of his suburban basement office, apparently limiting his contact to the outside world to e-mail from other self-pitying souls: He composed his Victims’ Manifesto, that impenetrable screed called Virtuous Reality. I hope it bombs.

Not really. I wish Virtuous Reality and Katz great success, because he deserves it. Wrapped tightly in his Web cocoon, the First Netizen of the Church of Cyberspace suffers hourly in the service of his new media victims: the timorous who prefer the Internet to the terror of face-to-face contact; the paranoid who extrapolate “the world is out to get me” conspiracies from the detritus of politics; Game Boy boys; phone phreaks; the kids down at the Smut Shack; and the teeming millions whose idea of a reality check is consulting a Web address.

Katz’s basement sounds like a clammy and frightening place to work, but it’s not the scariest place he knows, as he confided to New York magazine two months ago in a piece about his suburban community of Montclair, N.J.

“[Montclair] is a place where I’m totally comfortable walking my dog at one or two in the morning–which I do all the time,” Katz said. “But I’m far too frightened to go to a schoolboard meeting.”