June 29, 2008
Old Media News In The TankBy Lee Cary
The old broadcast and print media outlets have abandoned any pretense of objectivity and impartiality in this year's general election, further eroding their credibility. It makes one wonder. Is the future of news already here, or are we transitioning toward something still over the horizon?
News for public consumption has, of course, never been unbiased or infallible. Horace Greeley, of New York Tribune and "Go west, young man, go west" fame, ridiculed the purchase of Alaska from Russia, calling the useless land there a sucked orange. William Randolph Hearst's telegram from his New York Journal to reporter Frederic Remington in Cuba before the Spanish-American War represented the power of yellow journalism, whether he actually sent it or not: "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."
There is no pristine period of journalistic integrity we can herald as the 14 karat gold standard of news. The doctrine of caveat emptor applied to print, and later to electronic news (TV, radio, web), has always been "Let the viewer, listener, and reader beware."
There was, though, a time when, in the realm of mice and men, televised news was delivered by fewer mice and more men -- gender aside. Remember these names? Chet Huntley & David Brinkley, John Chancellor, and Frank McGee of NBC. Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, and Frank Reynolds of ABC. Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Charles Collingwood, CBS. With the exception of Cronkite, most are forgotten. Dan Rather will be remembered, but for less than honorable reasons.
Don't misunderstand. They had opinions. And, occasionally, those opinions showed. Chet Huntley, for example, was accused of editorializing with his eyebrows. But we didn't see them distort the news to fit their agendas. In 1965, 20 million viewers tuned in to NBC's The Huntley-Brinkley Report. Today, less than half that many watch NBC's Nightly News.
We respected them. Their resumes described seasoned, old school reporters. Real journalists, with more sophisticated skills than reading a teleprompter. At the evening news hour, TV sets across a nation tuned in to hear what happened that day. Perhaps we were more naïve then, less jaded. But we weren't back woods rubes easily conned by carnival hucksters. From time to time we discerned a lean toward bias. But during the general election season they weren't in the tank for anyone.
Over time, those Giants of the past were collectively replaced by Lilliputians, many with tiny little axes to grind. And, unfortunately for the credibility of the profession, an overtly partisan background became no hindrance to job opportunities in TV journalism. Chris Matthews was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter and, later, a top aide to Tip O'Neill. Brian Williams dropped out of college to become an intern in the Carter administration. George Stephanopoulos was Bill Clinton's communications director. When they put together a "roundtable" it tends to resemble a groupthink séance. Looking for unbiased reporting from their likes is akin to expecting an opera diva to frequent a karaoke bar. Maybe, but not likely.
Part of the unique persona and authenticity of Tim Russert was his ability to transcend his past as a professional partisan who once worked for New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His exception aside, why is it that some voice concern when federal employees leave government to become lobbyists, but are unconcerned when they become journalists and network news commentators? Once in the tank, it's a rare person who can climb out.
There's no relief from our local network affiliate news. It's little more than a mayhem-and-chaos report where only the name of the city changes. "Two youths die in gang-related shooting. Fire kills family of six. Convenience story robbed. Elderly woman beaten by burglar. Alderman indicted. Multi-car accident halts commuter traffic." Followed by chit-chat segues through weather and sports. Any big city.
Meanwhile, newspaper and newsmagazine circulation numbers also are in the tank, deeper every year. Dead media walking. The daily that hits the dew-covered driveway wrapped in plastic is D.O.A. Draw a chalk line around it and call the local TV station. "Dead news found in driveway. Details at 10."
For awhile, in the early 90's, CNN looked like the future. But then they caught the Old Media News viral infection and, zombie-like, joined the dying herd. Today they're indistinguishable from those they once sought to supplant.
FOX enters and gains ratings because it's different. It's cool. But is it just me, or are they wading ever deeper into Lake Cutsie? Shepherd Smith's Around the World in 80 Seconds surveys world news at warp speed. Tracking with regional happenings is like watching that kid who wins the eating contest by stuffing himself with half the hot dogs in the hemisphere. Hard news hardly. And how about that apparently inexhaustible supply of dueling Republican and Democratic "strategists" (Which is what exactly?) who look and act like they just graduated from Middle School, talking over each other while the moderator sits mute? This is not serious news, or serious anything.
Whether or not Obama wins the election, Old Media News is having its last hurrah. They're so in the tank for him that we're embarrassed for them, and for how far they've fallen. The same way a small town is embarrassed when a beloved citizen gets arrested for tax evasion.
So what's next for the news? The internet, you say. Of course. But it's just a tool, like a television and a printing press.
Are we sentenced to scanning the daily Drudged-up offerings to separate wheat from shaft? Searching for serious news like "Lost nuclear suitcase bomb found" amidst the "Indonesian baby born with alligator legs" story, and the "Starlet's breast enhancement goes bad" piece?
Matt Drudge is a sort of spiritual protégé of Walter Winchell (1897-1972). He even poses like Winchell over a microphone wearing a dark fedora, the signature attire of the mid-20th Century American newspaperman slash gossip columnist whose syndicated articles were once read by fifty million people worldwide, until he moved too close to the fire around Joe McCarthy and got burned. The Drudge Report is like a child born to a casual encounter between The National Enquirer and The Christian Science Monitor. Part tabloid. Part respectable.
So are we to be independent wanderers, surfing the web to fashion our own boutique of news sources? Or is there something over the horizon that will make easier the transfer of solid news to us along the information highway? Some as yet unimagined portal to global information that's gathered and redacted by impartial and smart minds. The web is only in its infancy. Baby Stalin, or baby Einstein?
Once upon a time what stood for news was easily accessible to almost all of us, across the economic spectrum. Whether it was enlightened or not, at least we operated from a common knowledge of raw events, or thought we did. The interpretation of those events was always in dispute, but the not the happenings.
When Cronkite said "And that's the way it is," we trusted the source and though, "Okay, now we know." When, in fact, in our blissful ignorance, we knew precious little.