Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Changing Role of the Media, Circa 1975

By Mitchell

“The objective of the ‘scandalous revelations’ filling the airwaves and news columns ought to be reform, but ‘thus far have brought little but cynicism and disillusion.’ "

Talking about O’Reilly, perhaps, or maybe CNN or MSNBC? Think again. It’s Pat Buchanan, quoting U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, in November 1975.

I wanted to get back to that November 1975 TV Guide I mentioned earlier this week. In it, there were two stories that tell us much about the evolution of the media’s role in news coverage – and that nothing really is new.

The first is Pat Buchanan’s News Watch column (yes, TV Guide actually had a column like that back then), the source of the initial quote. Buchanan is talking about the change in media coverage since Watergate, a change that has brought on an “excessively mistrustful and even hostile” atmosphere.

In pointing this out, we certainly don’t neglect the blame that belongs to Richard Nixon and his crew for creating the problem in the first place. But Buchanan looks at something more, at the natural evolution of such an atmosphere, asking “what will be the ultimate impact upon the democratic system, which itself guarantees freedom of the press?”

The problem, according to Buchanan, is that the media now has a vested interest in scandal – for ratings, for dollars, for prestige. (Little-remembered fact: NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley nightly news used to be presented without commercial interruption, in order to eliminate potential conflicts of interest and signify that the news division was not driven by profit margin.) What happens when that self-interest conflicts with a larger interest – the national interest, for example? Granting that the exact nature of the national interest is often a subject up for debate, Buchanan nevertheless points to the “declining confidence in leaders and institutions” and speculates on the ultimate consequence this will have for the nation.

Buchanan again quotes Fulbright (a Democrat, by the way, never a natural ally of Pat’s), who had recently authored the article "Fulbright on the Press" in the Columbia Journalism Review: “That Puritian self-righteousness which is never far below the surface of American life has broken through the frail barriers of civility and restraint, and the press has been in the vanguard of the new aggressiveness.”

What has changed is not the nature nor the inclination of those in the media to go after their subjects with every weapon at their disposal. What is new now is the very definition of media, which in this sense has come to include every blog, every web page, every podcast – in short, everyone with an opinion, which is just about everyone. As new types of media and new modes of communication have come about, this instinct of which Fulbright speaks has become more invasive, more insidious. Indeed, isn’t this what some here have spoken about, the increasing incivility of the blogosphere? Well, looking at this issue is like seeing the seeds of that harvest being planted.

A lot of people fall back on the “freedom of speech” argument, defending their right to say what they want whenever they want. And this is not an argument that should be taken lightly, because it’s a slippery slope at best. But Fulbright contends that the social contract requires “a measure of voluntary restraint, an implicit agreement among the major groups and interests in our society that none will apply their powers to the fullest.” A measure of responsibility, in other words, which is a commodity that can really be in short supply nowadays.

Now, I mention this not merely because of Pat Buchanan’s words, but because of the echo which the subject matter receives in another article from this issue, Edwin Newman’s “People are Generally Skeptical of Us…and Indeed They Should Be.”

Ed Newman, for you whippersnappers out there, was a respected and literate newsman at NBC in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and the author of several clever, humorous books on language.

Newman shares the concern with the increasing intrusiveness of the media. Asked what was wrong with endless investigation and revelation of public figures by the media, Newman replied, “It degrades public life. If purity tests are to become an accepted part of American life before anybody can go into politics, politics is going to be intolerable. It’s very nearly intolerable now.”

Remember, he said this over 20 years ago.

As for “advocacy journalism,” which was very much in vogue following Watergate (and remains so today – how many young people go to journalism school to “make a difference”?), Newman remains wary: “Advocacy journalism, so-called, cheats the public, which is entitled to make up its own mind.” In other words, as Fox News says, “We report, you decide.” Whether you think they’ve been accurate or not with that promise, one has to appreciate the perceptiveness of the marketing gurus who developed that slogan.

Newman adds, “Anybody in our business should avoid taking on false importance. We should certainly not pretend to be infallible.” Now that’s a novel idea today.

Newman also sounds a cautionary note on something which Buchanan alludes to, the amount of faith (or lack thereof) that people put in their leaders. Buchanan quotes Fulbright: “Bitter disillusionment with our leaders is the other side of the coin of worshiping them.” Such idolatry, says Newman, “leads to all kinds of lunatic expectations about what can be accomplished by politicians and so leads to irrational and disproportionate disappointment…it misleads Presidents about Presidents, so that they are tempted to do foolish things. And I think the press contributes to this for reasons of its own.”

This is a warning we should carefully consider. There’s a pronounced tendency nowadays to put an inordinate amount of faith in human institutions, which always seems to wind up badly. We create institutions, we tear them down, we rebuild them again. It keeps everyone busy, I suppose.

One has only to look at the disappointment felt by many conservative Catholics, for instance, impatient and discouraged that Benedict XVI hasn’t started a new Inquisition. Or politically conservative Christians, so eager to win a place at the political table, now disillusioned by the experience, realizing they should have stuck to Christ’s table at the Last Supper.

In many ways, the sins of the 60s culture were starting to be felt in the 70s, and would continue to be felt in subsequent decades. So one can see, as far back as 1975, a growing concern with cynicism in society, a disregard for institutions, a press displaying an “anything for a story” attitude. Again, there’s nothing new here, as it was not new then. But as communication expanded beyond the newspaper to radio, beyond radio to television, and beyond broadcast television to cable and satellite; as letters gave way to email and the internet, and as information once taking hours or days to transmit is now given instant analysis and parsing through the blogosphere, so also the consequences of such concerns are magnified, enlarged, and become even more troublesome.

There really isn’t anything new out there, only new ways of expressing it. And, it seems, new ways of ignoring old truths and concerns.

See what you can learn from old TV Guides, Cathy?


On that topic, a big shout-out to Billy Ingram at TVParty for his kind link to our site and his nice words about us. Keep up the great work, Billy, and we look forward to staying in touch!


  1. Mitchell: I think with freedom of speech also comes an obligation to speak responsibly. You are correct in that anyone can have an opinion and that everyone does. The problem is not that, seemingly, everyone is voicing their opinion these days, it's that people are not thinking or researching what they say first. Nor, do they care that they didn't.

    I think that the public used to hold it's speakers and writers more accountable when they were caught saying something incorrect or just plain wrong. Now, that WE, the public ARE the speakers we don't hold each other to the same standard. Nor do we hold the "professional" speakers like newspaper reporters, celebrities, politicians to the standard anymore either.

    In many ways, we are a nation of gossip columnists. I think Weekly World News is more credible sometimes then the junk that passes for reporting in the major dailies.

    I'd forgotten that the network newscasts used to be devoid of commercials. Oh, the good old days....

    I'm glad you aren't just doing the crossword puzzles in those old T.V. Guides, Mitchell!

  2. Nah, I'd never do the crossword puzzles. Ruins the value of the issue.

    On the other hand, the Trans-O-Gram in the back of National Review was a must every week!

    (By the way, I thought your more serious remarks were right on.)



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