(In light of the recent release of Gallup survey results indicating that an embarrassingly large portion of the American public has little trust in the news media, I present a reprise post from the Daily Brief, circa 2005, when the rot had already well set in, but wasn’t yet screamingly obvious.)
In the twilight afterglow of the Edward Murrow era of journalism, the only people that I remember routinely complaining about bias, selective reporting, or outright lies in journalism – print and broadcast both— were of the far-right-over-the-horizon John Birch Society persuasion, sourly grumbling about creeping godless communism (or maybe it was godless creeping communism) at cocktail parties or in letters to the editor. Considering that John Reed and Walter Duranty, among others, made careers out of painting world socialism in far more sunny colors than completely unbiased and disinterested journalism required, I have to concede that those doughty anti-communists of my youth may have had a point. But on the whole, it was a given that the main-stream media outlets of the American mid-century had enormous stores of credibility with the public.
It was accepted that the major newspapers, the big three television channels were generally telling the truth, as fairly and as accurately as they knew it. Reporters might be lied to by sources, might be misled or mistaken, might miss the story entirely – but if it was in the paper or on the 6 PM news, well, then it must be an accurate reflection of reality. Our media was not like the Russian propaganda organ, Pravda, which had to be read carefully, teasing out small nuggets of information from tiny scraps inadvertently included, or deduced from a sudden appearance of certain topics. This was American, damn it, and serious reporters had the benefit of the doubt. Only the supermarket tabloids with pictures of monkey babies and hundred-year old shipwreck survivors were assumed to have made up stories out of whole cloth.
I honestly can’t — and won’t given the depths to which the profession has lately fallen — claim to be a paid-up member myself, on the basis of an eight-week shake-and-bake military broadcaster course at the Defense Information School, but I spent a fair amount of time after that, loitering meaningfully in the neighborhood where acts of journalism were being committed; radio and television news, and dabbling a little in the print side. I know the mechanics of interviewing, editing, and writing fourteen lines per minute of copy, or how many yards and minutes of tape wind up in the trash can, because fifteen minutes of talk with an expert must be boiled down to a 15-second insert into a story written in the active voice and taking care to pronounce all the names right. I know that I usually had a pretty good idea of where I was going with a story; because I was an in-house hack for the military establishment – it was what they paid me for.
I was also a voracious news consumer, considering it part of my job to know the direction from which every imaginable s**tstorm might come, and to where TDY orders might send the military personnel who were my audience. I read or had subscriptions to – well, practically everything, at one time or another. Time, Newsweek, International Herald Tribune, Stars and Stripes, Rolling Stone, the military Times newspapers, Harpers’, Atlantic, Working Woman, National Geographic, Smithsonian, MS, Guardian Weekly, National Review, Mother Jones, Utne Reader, Spy, Brill’s Content, Village Voice, History Today, American Heritage – just for starters. The fringier publications often had stories that were a long way off on the horizon; I remember the Village Voice being about the first to start airing troubling doubts about alleged satanic child abuse at day care centers, months before the more mainstream news started taking those doubts seriously, too. Of course, every outlet, every magazine had a different take, a different emphasis, a different angle, and obviously some of the above had a little more credibility than others, and more than a few grains of salt necessary as an adjunct.
When did the rot begin? Hard to say, really, since there has always some potential for distortion of the news. The great press magnates of the mid century did have their foibles: Henry Booth Luce was so enchanted with Chiang Kai-shek and his wife that he (and by extension Time Magazine) overlooked for twenty years the Generalissimo’s complete ineptitude at governing China. No note was ever taken of Roosevelt’s almost complete reliance on braces, wheelchairs and the sturdy arms of aides all during his presidency – or more alarmingly, JFK’s compulsive serial womanizing during his, although both were open secrets among the press corps. Some will argue for Watergate, when the thrill of taking down a presidency put blood in the water for the ambitious investigative reporter seeking fame everlasting.
Peter Boyer’s Who Killed CBS?, from twenty years ago puts the blame squarely on the emphasis in television news— specifically CBS news, and 60 Minutes— on emphasizing a gripping visual image at the expense of plain facts, of news as entertainment spectacle. A modern morality play as it were. James Fallows in Breaking The News put the blame on—among other things— a disconnect between the consumers of news, and the highly paid elite press corps. Whether the genesis of the current situation was in the making ten, twenty or thirty years ago is almost irrelevant, in light of that everything that has piled on in the last three or four years.
Any sort of recent list has to include CNN maintaining their bureau in Baghdad by quietly killing stories about Saddam Hussein’s atrocities. It has to include mention of how coverage of the Middle East is warped by major international news services reliance on local stringers who have every reason to tilt their dispatches very much to one side. Of how on-scene reportage on the West Bank and Gaza is controlled by the Palestinians, who control access of the place to film crews and reporters. Of photographers who are marvelously on the spot when car bombs, ambushes and executions are going down, and respected news professionals insist that it is their obligation to watch it all happen. Or of reporters like Sy Hersh, whose past performance guarantees a pulpit for dubious and improbable stories of war crimes committed by the American military. It has to include stories based on transparent frauds and forgeries, on political hit-pieces perpetrated by reporters insisting that, no; they really, really are totally unbiased. It has to include stories where interviewees are presented as being merely interview subjects, when they are actually deeply compromised, with a strong interest in the coverage of the story one way or the other.
The pool has been poisoned.
I never was one of those people who assumed that just because it was broadcast, or in print, that therefore it must be true, but when I read or listen to something now, I am thinking: OK, who is this that you are talking too, and what is their game. What is yours? Why did you pick that expert out of your golden rolodex? Who is your local stringer, or your taxicab driver? Your local minder? Who gave you the lead and why? Why does your voice sound somehow warmer, more enthusiastic, when you talk to, or about this person or situation? What footage wound up in the wastebasket? How many people did you talk to before you got the answer that fitted your mental outline of the story? Where have you been before, who really writes your paycheck, and why? How long have you been in this place, how much do you really know, based on your previous reportage?
The saddest part of this new era of journalism, is that I already assume that I am being lied to, until otherwise confirmed by research. It is good to be an informed and savvy consumer – but what trust and credibility the mainstream media have carelessly pissed away.
Edward R. Murrow is probably revolving in his grave like a Black & Decker drill.