Wayne Shannon: A Case Study for the Internet’s Failings?

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While working on something tonight, some synaptic associative charge kicked in and I recalled a commentator named Wayne Shannon. The name probably means nothing to you if you didn’t grow up in the Bay Area twenty some odd years ago, but Shannon was a smug, wry, and roly-poly guy in his late forties with a graying moptop who appeared frequently on KRON Evening News in the 1980s, offering commentaries at the tail end of the program laced with acid barbs that questioned everything and everybody. Shannon was one of those bear-like guys that local television stations tended to employ. A guy who employed common sense arguments to mock the many things in life. Including, as I recall, Jim and Tammy Bakker.

I don’t know if Shannon was all that witty of a commentator, but his exuberance had, for whatever reason, made an impression upon my brain. And I tried Googling him to see if he was still around, only to find almost no traces of his existence. Not a single person had cobbled together old videotapes. Not a single person remembered him. It was as if he had never existed.

I had hoped that Google would permit me to corroborate my memories. Here was a guy who, even if he was a minor television personality, likely entertained millions of people not more than twenty years ago and not a single one of these people thought to memorialize him. For all I know, I might be the first person to remark upon his existence.

And it occurred to me that the Internet is not all that great of a resource after all. Perhaps there really is a need for us to chronicle our cultural minutiae. After all, if the newspapers are giong to hide behind paywalls, allowing articles to disappear within weeks, then it might just be up to us to recall what they had to say. But is our commentary really a reliable record? Is our subjective viewpoint really presenting the situation well? Should we not be writing up more objective reports?

Another thing that’s troubling me: Why should I be using Google to confirm my memories? Why should I believe it to be the ultimate oracle when I could call KRON up and see if I could obtain some videotapes or ask what became of Shannon? When I can go back and search through old microfilms?

(Aside: Wayne Shannon did exist. I did not hallucinate him. He left KRON in 1988 when news director Herb Dudnick became tired of his essays and he tried to negotiate a new deal unsuccessfully. Perhaps he pissed too many people off. He resurfaced on CNBC, but how long he lasted, who can say?)

And here again, I find myself needing to confirm my memory against something. Even a few fleeting facts that still don’t tell the whole story.

A few years ago, I had a short-lived blog called Raising Caen, in which I read Herb Caen’s old columns, starting from 1938, and tried to see if there was any trace of any of the people or places he referenced online. No surprise. Most of them had disappeared. Major stores such as the Martha Washington Candy Shop chain, remembered fondly for its vanilla butter cream coated with dark chocolate, were unmemorialized. (More references can be found here.)

The point of all this is that, if you run a blog, you have a duty to remain curious about all sorts of things. You have a duty to present some element or representation of the truth that others might be able to jump off from or that, at least, permits them to read between the lines. A subject like Wayne Shannon may have seemed banal twenty years ago, but today, as I ponder if the man’s alive or dead and contemplate whether my own favorable response to him might have influenced me in some way, I would have been grateful for some online mention. Now it appears I’ll have to do some considerable footwork.

Is this journalism? Not exactly. But bloggers are, in their own strange way, keeping historical records. While I might go to the library to look up Wayne Shannon, I’m guessing that the general public would remain lazy about this. Perhaps, more than we realize, it’s up to us to do a better job.

[2008 UPDATE: You can now listen to a podcast interview with Wayne Shannon.]

[2012 UPDATE: Wayne Shannon has passed away. Here are my memories of befriending him, and here is a 21 clip video salute.]

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