The Corner

Tv or Not Tv

I do think Bill must take the prize for moving the public-intellectual idea into the small-screen era. I can’t think of anyone who preceded him (though no one could have preceded him by more than a few years, since it was public TV that made “Firing Line” possible, a seemingly paradoxical fact we would all do well to remember!). On the other hand, Mencken and Chesterton both appeared on radio, the latter with some frequency, and by all accounts were very good at it. Nor were they any less influential than Bill merely because they were unfortunate enough to come along before TV. And while there have always been “intellectuals with popular followings,” I think there’s something especially interesting about the intellectual who deliberately seeks to influence a popular audience by making use of whatever mass medium happens to be most powerful in his own time. In writing about Mencken, I was struck by the fact that his career as we know it would not have been possible prior to the emergence of the large-circulation newspaper, which was itself enabled by new printing technologies. That was the key–the moment when the “mass media” came into being. TV in Bill’s time increased the size of the audience, but not the underlying principle. It’s the rise of the new media, not the invention of TV, that marks the true dividing line between past and present. The next generation of public intellectuals will come from the blogosphere, not newspapers or TV, and their careers will follow a radically different arc. Indeed, the very idea of a “public intellectual” may itself be made obsolete by the every-man-his-own-publisher reality of blogging…but that’s something to talk about another day.

Terry TeachoutMr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.

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