Monday, August 2, 2004

Our late great Fourth Estate

Now that it’s over, you’ve discovered that, had you wanted gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic National Convention, you would have had to watch C-Span. If you watched network television all week, you got only one-hour’s coverage each night on ABC, CBS, and NBC and none at all on Fox’s KTVU. They deemed it more important for you – and certainly more profitable for them – to broadcast such bread and circus as “Trading Spouses,” “Fear Factor,” “Hollywood Squares,” and “Seinfeld” repeats. “Why?” you ask. Read on. It’s a sad story.

Since the founding of the republic, a free and aggressively curious media has operated as the advocate of the people and as one of the main bulwarks against would-be tyrants. Over the past three years, however, the media has been curiously silent. There have been a variety of factors behind the decade-long taming of the once-proudly bold Fourth Estate. These have included the consolidation of corporate power in fewer and fewer hands, FCC rulings that have cleared the way for ever greater consolidations, the profit-driven rush to the bottom of journalistic and societal standards, and outright manipulation by neo-fascist ideologues.

Thus radio has become a cesspool of racist hate talk. Cities, once home to a variety of local viewpoints in competing newspapers and broadcast outlets, have become single-medium outlets purveying one national perspective. Once proud and independent network news operations – Remember Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Ted Turner, Bernie Shaw? – have been gutted and subordinated to profit-driven entertainment divisions. Unwilling to sustain any monetary loss to serve the public, corporate moguls have fired knowledgeable and hard-working foreign correspondents, replacing them with stringers with dubious credentials; replaced respected anchors with vacuous pretty faces – male and female; transformed news magazines that held promise of in-depth treatment of serious issues into little more than “Entertainment Tonight;” and generally succumbed to the basest forms of group think. The most obvious and important questions go unasked. And accountability and responsibility go begging.

Examples? Take those Pentagon briefings last year where Rumsfeld tamed a pliant press corps with scorn and ridicule? Take the continued dissing of Helen Thomas, the respected dean of the White House press corps, and the dismissal of her perceptive questions by spokesmen who haven’t the slightest idea of what journalism is about. Take the decline of the once-respected New York Times, which for far too long tolerated the biased and unsound WMD reporting of fear-monger Judith Miller, only last week issuing a tepid mea culpa for its two-year failure to ask the right questions about the Iraq war.

The result? On TV, there is that Rupert Murdoch/RogerAiles monstrosity called Fox News, which, over the past several weeks has dropped all pretense of being “fair and balanced” and become little more than a broadcast outlet of the RNC. The home of wild-eyed blowhards and bullies like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, wide-eyed “reporters” like Linda Vester who seem surprised even by the daily sunrise, and “experts” like Ollie North and Geraldo Rivera who seem locked in some macho mano-a-mano, Fox is but a parody of journalism. Want the inside scoop? You’ve got to see “Outfoxed.” Go to, order the DVD for $9.95, and invite your friends over for a good laugh.

Then there are the Fox wannabes – MSNBC and CNBC. The latter has morphed news into Saturday Night Live, turning itself over entirely to Dennis Miller, Tim McEnroe, and much of the SNL cast. Where, we’re left to ask, does comedy end and news begin? Nowhere, I fear, and there is precious little of either. At least the sports fans of “Monday Night Football” understood that Miller knew nothing about football. How long until the powers that be at CNBC realize that Mogley knows more about news than Miller ever will. (Now there’s a spin-off possibility!) MSNBC, the self-styled “serious alternative,” has tried to turn itself into a video version of talk radio, hiring the right-wing likes of Michael Savage, Joe Scarborough, Pat Buchanan, and yellow dog Democrat Chris Matthews. But even the “fair and balanced” viewers of MSNBC couldn’t stomach the venom of Michael Savage in prime time.

Oh, for the CNN of Ted Turner and Bernie Shaw. Now we get Barbara Starr sonorously passing on the latest Pentagon press release, the latest political analysis of retired colonels, and Wolf Blitzer breathlessly shouting over the daily drumbeat of ominous martial music. CNN even touted Wolf’s late night appearance on Jon Stewart’s comedy show, oblivious to the invidious comparison. Stewart came across as a serious-minded journalist, Blitzer as a clown.

The networks? Forget it. No longer “loss leaders,” network news now dishes up embedded flag-wavers, wall-to-wall trials, and Barbara Wawa’s pompous puff pieces with her favorite celebrities.

PBS? Goodbye, Bill Moyers. Hello Tucker Carlson. Need I say more?

If you want to learn more about the sorry capitulation of the American media, check out the trenchant commentary by Orville Schell in the latest edition of Mother Jones. Schell, dean of Journalism at UC Berkeley, is eminently more qualified, eminently more even-handed than I could ever be.


No comments:

Post a Comment