What Johnny Carson can teach us about the modern mainstream media
Although he retired in 1992 and died in 2005, the consensus remains that Johnny Carson was the greatest late night-talk show ever. His reign on NBC's Tonight show lasted just a few months short of 30 years. His old Tonight shows are still around, running weeknights under the name of Johnny Carson on the digital subchannel network Antenna TV.
With recordings available from the late '70s to Carson's retirement, the programs are an interesting time machine, the best feature being Carson's comic monologues. If one was around in those days, memories return as Carson pokes fun at politicians, celebrities, and different items in the news. He was a master. There is a slew of items today considered politically incorrect — Carnac the Magnificent (cultural appropriation), recognition that some women are beautiful (wrongthink because...because...well, just because).
In recent weeks of Johnny Carson shows, several guests have broken the typical lineup of comedians, actors plugging movies, colorful old ladies, and unique animals. Two heavyweights of mid-20th century broadcast news, Walter Cronkite and Sam Donaldson, appeared on separate 1980s programs.
Interviews with both men showed how journalism has changed in the past few decades. Cronkite, with a newspaper and broadcast career dating back to the 1930s, was the legendary anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. Iconic images of him burned into the minds of many Americans include on-air fighting back tears while announcing that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead after being shot in Dallas and the picture of grinning Cronkite's boyish glee at the first manned moon landing.
"Uncle Walter's" broadcast delivery seemed right down the middle. But his post-retirement autobiography, A Reporter's Life, showed an overwhelmingly liberal worldview. It's a credit to his professionalism (or perhaps because we didn't know any better) that the extent of his leftist bias remained fairly hidden.
On the recent Johnny Carson rerun, Carson asked Cronkite if there was anything he regretted in his career. Cronkite responded that in the 1968 Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention, he regretted that he had allowed controversial Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who headed up police who beat demonstrators and reporters, to speak without interruption. Cronkite told Carson that in speaking, he felt that Daley would just hang himself. Daley did not. Rather, he made a good defense of himself and what happened in Chicago. Cronkite regretted letting him speak. It's obvious that in those days, Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America," was not totally committed to the later concept of "we report, you decide."
Sam Donaldson's late 1980s appearance with Carson showed him to be affable, a great storyteller, and presenting an image different from the one that often offended conservatives: a nemesis to then-president Ronald Reagan, aggressively shouting questions at the president wherever Reagan might appear. Donaldson credited the president for being a gracious man and admired his ability to communicate and his gift for self-deprecation. But in addition to making fun of Reagan's forgetfulness, Donaldson's liberalism was clear when he said he liked Reagan but not his policies. A person down on his luck could go into the Oval Office, Donaldson said, and tell his sad story to Reagan, and the president "would give him the shirt off his back." Then, Donaldson said, Reagan would sit there in his undershirt and cancel the Social Security of the man's parents.
Watching the old Carson shows, one can see a reflection of a different era. Few knew of Cronkite's intense liberal bent. And, unlike the hand-in-glove relationship between news media and the Democratic party, Donaldson said he did not make friends with the politicians he was covering. There was recognition among many in those days that people were doing their jobs, that things weren't personal. Donaldson said while speaking on the air that he once made a remark about Nancy Reagan that he later realized was very unkind. As a result, he wrote a personal letter offering an apology to the first lady. She accepted it.
But the roots of modern coarseness were already there. About the time of the Donaldson appearance with Carson, Judge Robert's Bork's unsuccessful confirmation bid for the U.S. Supreme Court met with so much hostility that "bork" became a verb for attempting to politically destroy someone. Bork's wife, Mary Ellen, was deeply offended when Sen. Edward Kennedy, after personally attacking Bork, came up to the couple with a "buddy-buddy-it's-just-politics" demeanor.
We've now witnessed two decades of politics as war. Democrats are on a scorched earth campaign to fulfill Barack Obama's promise to fundamentally change America. While the news media of Walter Cronkite's and Sam Donaldson's day were unabashedly liberal and Democrat, there remained some sense of decency and a degree of allegiance to principles of the Republic. No more. Legacy media are operatives of the Democratic Party, cancel culture plagues the land, and the unholy alliance between government and major corporations, including those of Big Tech, provides the scent of growing fascism.
It's grown so sour that comedians find it hard to make jokes. Perhaps it's for the best that Carson's humor is now limited to events of long ago contained in ancient reruns on a little known network.
A retired marketing professor, Mike Landry is a freelance writer in Northwest Arkansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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