08. October 2005 · Comments Off on Debasing the Currency: Part 2 · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not

It’s not that the news media were ever that shining, impartial, unbiased city on a hill, in days of yore— in the 19th century, American newspapers were as partisan as they come, and open enough about it to put their political affiliation on the masthead. And the usual run of partisan political abuse was venomous enough to make the various Something-gate ruckuses of the late 20th century look like the local Lutheran church general membership meeting in comparison. Early in the decades of this last century, the term “yellow journalism”— inflammatory, partisan, selective with facts— was practically a synonym for the Hearst chain. It goes without saying that Hearst’s newspapers were widely read, enormously popular, and innovative; sort of the Ted Turner and CNN news of the day. (Although Ted Turner has not yet to build an enormous fairy-tale castle filled with art and architectural salvage on top of a mountain in California. Yet, anyway.)

The newspaper magnates of that day, and their reporters were not without bias, or a taste for the sensational, either; mark the Lindberg kidnapping and resulting trial, or the New York Times’ Walter Duranty’s predilection for trimming his reportorial sails to suit the winds of Soviet Stalinism. But if there could ever be said to have been a golden age of print and broadcast journalism in America, though, it would have had to have been the thirty years between WWII and Watergate, and it’s presiding saint was Edward R. Murrow, present or in the memory of those who worked with him, or followed after. He set the standard, and a high one at that; fearless, principled, observant, and willing to go beyond the merely superficial, telling his listeners not just what they wanted to know, but what they ought to know, in order to make sense of it all. He was not the first to do this, but is the individual that we think of first when we try to think of someone who exemplifies the gold standard of news. Whether trivial or of import, readers and listeners operated from the assumption of credibility during that era.

Reporters might be mistaken, might not have the whole story right away, sources might be lying through their teeth, but we assumed that reporters were setting their personal biases aside (whatever those biases might be) and telling us what they saw before their own eyes. What we saw on TV, or read in the better sort of non-tabloid newspaper, or serious magazine, our assumption was that it was accurate, as the reporter saw it. A long, sad slow series of events began shredding this assumption, beginning long before the blogosphere, long before 9/11, degrading the value of the news currency. The gold coinage of the Murrow era was slowly replaced with pot metal, and the worst of it was, the media did it to themselves, for what seemed to be the best, but short-term reasons at the time.

People have always wanted to know about crime, bad weather, celebrity travails and disasters near and far; this does not change from age to age or country to country. It sells newspapers and advertising, after all, and it’s easy to write about. As early as 1988 Peter Boyer ( in “Who Killed CBS”) was chiding CBS news for consciously emphasizing the visual, the superficial, the emotional image of news events, for having fallen from the high standards set by America’s “Tiffany” network, from being serious news to merely entertainment. Boyer singled out for especial disapproval Van Gordon Sauter and Dan Rather. Other commenters, some of them to this blog, have dated the rot to have been in the wake of Watergate, when budding young journalism students were fired with the lure of being investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein (who got a movie, with Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffman playing them!) and not incidentally, brought down a president. A decade after Boyer, James Fallows (“Breaking the News”) put the blame on a reportorial establishment that framed itself as well-paid elite, magisterial and above the fray. Fallows hoped for the rise of public journalism, of reporters being truly involved as citizens; what he hoped for came to pass, and I can’t help wondering how he feels these days, of ordinary citizens and bloggers empowered to report and editorialize. Citizens’ journalism with a vengeance, as it were and about time.

The list of media dishonor goes on, and on: the Peter Arnett “Tailwind” disaster, CNN’s much-vaunted Baghdad bureau pulling their reportorial punches in return for continued access, the fraud of Jenin and Mohammed-el-Dura, (and the dependence upon Palestinian stringers for reportage in the West Bank and Gaza generally), the whole Rather/TANG memos thing, the Katrina/New Orleans disaster, and the willingness of various media to repeat without any sort of reservation or quick-double-checking any number of sensational stories…. Well, any comprehensive list would be about three pages longer, and tax my ability to provide links after two glasses of Chablis.

Slightly buzzed, or completely sober, my conclusion is pretty much the same. The major media is debased coinage. I can’t take it as a given any more, that what I see, or read, or hear from them is true. My assumption is, that they have their own agenda, I will have to do a bit of fact-checking, and wait for a while before I can come to any sort of conclusion about what I have had put in front of me— make allowances, tease out the implications, come to my own conclusions from the jig-saw assembly provided to me.

It all kind of reminds me, in a minor way, of what people in the former Soviet Union had to do— and that is a sad comment on what the major media has become. Eager young journalism majors used to burble that they wanted to be reporters so they could make a difference. So they have… but not a good difference.

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