New Criticism

A history of the 1990s misses the good old days -- and the truth.


The year 1964 came and went a long time ago, and Haynes Johnson seems none too happy about it. At least that's the impression one gets from this ironically titled essay on recent American history. Although the 1990s brought many economic and technological blessings, Johnson, a former Washington Post reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, detects "ill-defined currents of discontent; a sense that something is missing." It quickly becomes clear that he yearns for the old order of an assertive federal government that enjoys popular faith, a traditional media structure in which New York and Washington editors control the information flow, and a big-unit economy in which old-line firms make old-fashioned things under the watchful eye of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division.

In The Future and Its Enemies (1998), former reason editor Virginia Postrel coined a word for people like Johnson: stasists. Preferring yesterday's quiet ("stasis") to tomorrow's open-ended future, stasists are always warning us about troubling trends that call for more planning and regulation. Johnson describes the Clinton years as a decade when every bright light cast a dozen dark shadows. "Technology in a way scares me," a Stanford senior who supposedly represents American youth tells Johnson. "Cloning and those kinds of issues are very scary to me. I want to make sure there are mechanisms in place to control those kinds of things, and I don't know that there will be." Johnson concludes in his last chapter that "the problems promise to become even more tortuous in the future."

To draw a convincingly dire picture of where we are heading, stasists need a plausible critique of where we have been. But The Best of Times is hardly the best of social histories. Johnson seems a stranger in his own time, often sounding like someone who has partially awoken from a long cryogenic sleep. The PBS NewsHour erred by including him on its regular panel of historians. He doesn't study yesteryear; he is yesteryear.

In the book's first section, "Technotimes," Johnson tells of a visit to Microsoft's corporate headquarters. "Its employees and top executives refer to it as their 'campus,'" he says with an air of discovery. "They all speak of its 'culture,' their 'Microsoft culture.'" He is apparently unaware that firms have long referred to office complexes as "campuses" and that "corporate culture" has been a corporate cliché at least since the 1980s.

Johnson has heard of the Internet, but he is hazy on its capabilities. For example, he quotes a Silicon Valley friend as saying that in 10 years it might just be possible to send e-mail in English to Germany and have it come out in German. That friend probably didn't survive the dot-com shakeout since he or she wasn't keeping up. E-mail translation services are already available on a number of Web sites, and although their treatment of idiomatic expressions leaves something to be desired, the basic technology is in place.

It is no surprise that Johnson uncritically accepts the notion of the "digital divide," the purported gap in Internet access between rich and poor, white and black. In a reason article three years ago ("Falling for the Gap," November 1999), Adam Clayton Powell III demolished this myth with data that showed increasing access, particularly in the workplace. More recently, other observers, including the U.S. Department of Commerce, have made similar points, but Johnson does not acknowledge their views or, for that matter, just about any free market argument.

Where others could see opportunity, Johnson can see only turmoil. By producing cheap computer operating systems and software programs, Microsoft helped trigger a vast revolution in communications, but Johnson's discussion of the Microsoft antitrust case rails against "the reality of a cutthroat business filled with egotistic, arrogant people." If he really wanted a portrait of egotism and arrogance, he needn't have gone farther than Microsoft's nemesis, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

In his next section, "Teletimes," Johnson looks at the mass media and sees even more disturbing signs. Here he does make a point, albeit unintentionally. He worked for many years at The Washington Post and now teaches journalism. If his level of accuracy and grasp of historical context represent the best of the profession, then the media have deep troubles indeed. Johnson cites data showing that Internet usage is increasing but claims "that doesn't mean people are using the Internet news offerings in greater numbers." Wrong. He should have checked surveys by the Pew Center for the People and the Press ( In 1998, 13 percent of adults reported going online for news at least three times a week. Two years later, that figure had grown to 23 percent. Now news junkies can bypass Johnson's friends in big-city editorial offices and instead pick what they want to see, whether from the Associated Press, Salon, or Reason Online.

The O.J. Simpson trial is Johnson's main case study of the press in the 1990s. Not only does it represent the blurring of entertainment and news, he says, but it also reveals fundamental attitudes about race. Sixteen months after the not-guilty verdict in the criminal trial, Johnson writes, "an all-white jury in Southern California's suburban Orange County unanimously found Simpson responsible for the murders." These words may sound like a powerful statement about race and society, but they're wrong in two crucial respects. First, the jury in the civil trial was not "all-white." According to self-descriptions, jurors included one Hispanic, one Asian, and one person of Asian and black heritage. Second, the trial took place not in suburban Orange County but in the relatively bohemian Los Angeles County community of Santa Monica. So Simpson lost with a multiethnic jury in a socially liberal city. Doesn't have the same punch when you put it that way, does it?

Johnson claims that television stations are downplaying news, and he blames deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission. Actually, because of market pressure and improved technology, local news broadcasts have become longer and more frequent. Public affairs broadcasting did take a hit during the 1990s, but as the result of increased regulation. The "must carry" provisions of the Cable Act of 1992 required cable operators to carry over-the-air broadcast signals on their systems. To make room, many operators dropped C-SPAN—the home of the sort of serious programming that Johnson claims is missing from the tube.

Johnson apparently believes that there was once a golden age of high-minded, morally pristine, and intellectually rigorous journalists. He mentions Walter Lippmann, but historical research has revealed that Lippmann wrote columns praising speeches that he himself had ghostwritten for favored politicians. Johnson quotes a 1958 speech in which the sainted Edward R. Murrow warned that television was already "being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us." He sees prophecy in those words, but he misses their hypocrisy. Murrow himself helped found celebrity television journalism with Person to Person, an interview show in which he sat in a studio and asked chatty questions of guests sitting in their homes.

Johnson saves his purest venom for the new media: "the disgraceful attack talk-radio programs" and Internet sites featuring "cranks, sensation-seekers, professional hit men, rumor-and-hate mongers, maliciously motivated ideologues." He sneers at Matt Drudge's claim of an 80 percent accuracy rate, which "even the least reputable newspaper or TV broadcast would deem unacceptable." In light of the many inaccuracies in his own book, Johnson should ponder a line from Matthew (the gospel writer, not Drudge): "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you."

Johnson contends that Internet-generated bile has turned people away from public life, forgetting the many ways in which the Web fosters debate and discussion. In fact, if Johnson had wanted to find diverse and thoughtful criticisms of Internet news, he could have searched www. and found it on a large number of Web logs that offer exactly what he claims is missing in cyberspace.

The book's longest section, "Scandal Times," offers a painfully detailed account of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Johnson purports to use it as a window on America's corrupt soul but along the way throws in reams of needless detail. In a taped conversation with Lewinsky, a footnote tells us, Linda Tripp confessed that she had gone seven years without sex. Johnson adds: "How relevant, or revelatory, that may be is beyond my capacity to determine." So unless his purpose is just to sling a bit of slime in Tripp's direction, why does he mention it in the first place?

Toward the end of this 212-page section, Johnson quotes New York Times reporter Francis X. Clines calling the story "a toxic waste dump of fetid ingredients and methane energies." It's hard to understand why Johnson needs so much space to reach a conclusion that nearly everyone else reached four years ago. Nevertheless, this portion of the book could serve a socially useful purpose: If American armed forces started reading it aloud to the Al Qaeda prisoners, they'd break in no time flat.

In light of the horrific events that occurred after Johnson wrote the book's last lines, his title does not seem so ironic after all. Even in the best of times, however, political life requires probing and subtle analysis, which you won't find here. Johnson once published a book about the 1980s whose title sums up his own approach to the 1990s: Sleepwalking Through History.