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Was That the Way It Was?

FROM THE 1930s into the 1980s, when public information in America moved through a decreasing number of pipelines—the era of growing newspaper concentration and three major broadcast networks—the field of media studies was dominated by the view that such media power as existed was benign. Journalism was conducted by professionals, who separated fact from opinion and news from entertainment. The power to certify what was worth knowing, and to depict it comprehensibly, nourished democracy, which needed, after all, a bedrock of agreement about what was happening in the world. Though the suppliers were concentrated, and the audiences were heavily dependent on a few channels, the existence of a plurality of “opinion leaders” was regarded as a guarantee that the media would fail to warp public opinion, even if they wanted to. This academic line of argument was pleasing to the ears of network moguls, who submitted to light-handed government regulation in exchange for infinitely renewable, costless broadcast licenses of publicly owned airways—licenses which, since they were never revoked, amounted implicitly to official permission to print money.

If it turned out, according to much research, that the media may not have been able to tell people what to think but were indeed able to tell them what to think about (the so-called “agenda-setting function”), then at least the experts of the news profession could pride themselves on a certain success, since they practiced what was, after all, a profession. Its practitioners knew how to find out what was worth knowing and how to deliver that knowledge to a citizenry who were primed to take note of it and put it to work as they deliberated upon the rightful course of the nation. Just as doctors could be trusted to make diagnoses, newsmen (and the occasional newswoman) could be trusted to sort out “the facts.” Expert gatekeepers were rightly in charge.

That world was guided by what the political scientists Bruce Williams and Michael Delli Carpini refer to as a “media regime,” which was not quite as stringent as the word may suggest. There was a sort of social contract to which Americans consented—except that the rewards were not as splendid as the current Cronkite nostalgia supposes. The authors rightly point out that if “we judge a media regime by how well it fosters a more informed citizenry, the Age of Broadcast News did a remarkably poor job. As many scholars have noted, despite dramatic increases in the average level of education and an increase in access to sources of information, Americans in the 1980s showed no improvement in levels of political knowledge over the earliest days of survey research in the 1940s.”

The old regime is now passing, or has passed. The average age of a TV network news viewer is over sixty. We are now about two decades into an evolving regime in which authority is more fluid and multiform, and seemingly less, well, authoritative. As Williams and Delli Carpini make clear—though without sufficiently exploring how this came to pass—the new constellation of informational power was one for which the go-for-broke political right was poised to play a succession of crucial parts. The rise of Rush Limbaugh and the Clinton scandals, beginning with Gennifer Flowers in 1992, marked the end of the old dispensation and the beginning of something else. The structures of gatekeeping had broken down and the Flowers story, “broken” by Star, could whirl with ease onto CNN and so on.

In part, the traffic in sex charges marked a return to the slash-and-burn political discourse of the early Republic. But in part it signaled something new: a breakdown of the culture by which authority was established. Fox News founded an alternative cognitive universe because a power-hungry billionaire saw fit to invest in it. Professionals caved in to amateurs. The late Tim Russert saw fit to usher Rush Limbaugh onto Meet the Press to present his learned views on Iraq. (When I questioned Russert about this decision, his response was, “He speaks to twenty million people,” not “He knows about Iraq.”) The landscape was ripe for a CNBC reporter named Rick Santelli, himself a former trader and financial executive, to launch the Tea Party movement with a cri de coeur over an establishment-run “news network.”

If ordinary journalism was the art of learning how to establish facts and knowing which ones count, the profession threw in the towel when the much-touted Golden Age of Vietnam and Watergate was barely over. A journalism career could now handily begin with opinion. Russert himself began his career as a political operative. So did Patrick Buchanan, George Will, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer, James Carville, Lawrence O’Donnell, and for that matter, Michael Moore. In 1994, the networks broke into regular programming to “cover” the police pursuit of O. J. Simpson across the L.A. freeways. Just as the line between news and opinion got blurred, so did the line between news and politics, and news and entertainment. “All the news that’s fit to print” was hopelessly retro—a sepia slogan in a neon world.  

In the 1990s, there were new channels, and therefore new megaphones; and the profession scrambled for legitimacy. It offered little to impede the right-wing assault. Racy or dubious stories were “out there,” and therefore deemed reportable by the mainstream. About the ideological loading of the best-financed elements of the new dispensation, the authors are pointed, though they could be still more so. They observe that in 2003, when MSNBC hired the right-wing Michael Savage and canceled the liberal Donahue, claiming poor ratings, Donahue was MSNBC’s highest-rated talk show. But for all such concessions, the authors fail to explain why the right wing still thought that the established media had become what Sarah Palin called “lamestream.”

From the 1960s on, national consensus about the nature of reality had withered. Right-wing dissenters purchased their own institution, while even apolitical folks were losing a good deal of their faith in the establishment. And why not? The authors tell us that network news reports on economic inequality numbered a grand total of five during the period 2000-2007—a burst of attention, I suppose, compared with the three that aired during the entire decade of the 1990s. Williams and Delli Carpini show how poor a job mainstream journalism did at reporting the transformation of earthly life by rampant climate change. The puffball interrogations of Jim Lehrer and the he-said-she-said dumb-show of “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” were the best the establishment could offer when confronting a whole faction of Americans devoted to shoddiness, fraud, and fakery. The housing bubble had a wonderful press while it lasted, while the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 barely registered. Yet the left failed to mount its own counter, for reasons the authors do not explore.

Williams and Delli Carpini are indisputably right when they point out that straight-out entertainment (Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and many movies) loom large in the new media configuration. They are right that chat-rooms and interactivity aerate the new chaotic order of media, and also that the new channels have their own insularity. They tread well-trodden ground when they demonstrate how the establishment collapsed into the arms of the Bush administration after September 11, 2001. They find pluses and minuses in the new dispensation, but hedge their bets with a profusion of “to be sure” sentences and anodyne space-fillers like this one: “The democratic potential of the new media is also worth struggling to preserve and enhance.” They strain to surpass the obvious about the new confusion. They want journalism that is transparent, pluralist, given to verisimilitude (a softer version of objectivity), and encouraging of political engagement—but who doesn’t? They want to resist the old Progressive model of professional gatekeeping, but still want a media that could be tutelary as the old (inadequate) model proposed. One can sympathize with their dilemma, but academic muffling is a confinement. The deep truth is that the world is too dangerously, irresponsibly run to be adequately addressed by either the old stuffy journalism or the new disorderly kind.

The authors are right to refer darkly to “the seldom-acknowledged profit motive of news organization and the short- and long-term impact of this motive on the quality of information provided.” But they are perhaps insufficiently blunt. Another way of putting the matter about the current state of “the news” would be not that it is lost its way, but that it has found its way—and the way it has found is not essentially different from the way it had found before, namely, the agglomeration of the maximum number of eyeballs for profit.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, and chair of the Ph. D. program in communications, at Columbia University, and the author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (!t Books/HarperCollins).