In the same issue of Broadcasting & Cable magazine in which Al Gore described the public's deep yearning for Current TV, former ABC anchor (and current NBC Rock Center special correspondent ) Ted Koppel issued one of his lectures on how the elite media has lost its way amidst all the rabble and their incessant partisan blogging and partisan cable news.
To Koppel, the nation was much better off when it was guided by a small and wise (and supposedly nonpartisan) national media elite that had the brains to separate the wheat from the chaff of information and tell the public how it should think. That's all been ruined now by the "democratization of journalism," and the public will ruin the country with their incessantly partisan ravings. Here's some of that critique:
Many years ago, I offended some of the photojournalists among my colleagues in making a critical observation about CNN. Simply pointing a live camera at an unfolding event, and then transmitting that signal around the world, was not, I suggested, journalism. It was a breathtaking feat of technology, but journalism requires a great deal more. It requires editing, separating the significant from the trivial. It requires context; an explanation of how what we’re seeing fits into a larger pattern of events. It requires reporting; the process by which we establish, as best we can within the limits of deadlines, the veracity of what is being said, sometimes even what is being seen.
Thirty or forty years ago, I used to tell audiences, with a mixture of pride and chagrin, that while doctors and lawyers needed a license to practice, that while everyone needed a license to drive, or hunt, or fish, nobody needed a license to be a journalist. Of course, back then, the only way to communicate to a national audience was to get a job with a national news magazine, like Time or Newsweek, or with a national broadcasting network, of which there were only three. So, the opportunity was more theoretical than real. Still, with the advent of the Internet, I used to tell college students that the capacity to communicate globally was now, literally in their hands.
I never actually expected them to do it.
Well, here it is: the democratization of journalism. And somewhat belatedly, some of us are recalling that the Founding Fathers weren’t all that enamored of pure democracy, when they were crafting what would become our system of government.
Representational government – not democracy, for heaven’s sake! The American public, it was feared, was too likely to be swayed by the passions of the moment.
Just imagine if the public was kept informed, round the clock, of the votes – sometimes even the intentions – of their congressperson. Imagine if they were exposed, round the clock, to a partisan harangue designed to inflame their pre-existing biases. And imagine if voters could then instantly communicate their displeasure directly to the office of their elected representative. Well, the consequences to our political system are too horrible to contemplate. But what was unimaginable in the 18th century has become commonplace in the 21st. More than ever beofre, we live today in a world of instant reaction, constant judgment, and corrosive partisanship.
Koppel thinks that when he was anchoring Nightline and unloading completely partisan junk -- like the "October Surprise" theory that Reagan delayed the release of American hostages in Iran to get elected in 1980 -- that was a golden era of nonpartisan journalism. Koppel, the allegedly sober guardian of truth and fact, never apologized when his partisan theory collapsed. No, in fact, Reagan is still to blame for ruining TV news. Oh, the network brass discovered shows like 60 Minutes could make money, but that didn't become a problem until that actor became president:
Initially, it was a fairly benign process. But by the 1980s, when the Reagan administration began the process of widespread deregulation and federal agencies like the FCC were rendered essentially toothless, the networks began putting more and more pressure on their news divisions to operate like any other profit center.
Then came the other traditional liberal-media bogeymen:
In October of 1996, Rupert Murdoch hired a former top Republican strategist by the name of Roger Ailes, to establish the Fox cable and satellite network. These days, Fox is at great pains to deny that its news channel has any political agenda. But Murdoch and Ailes are being unnecessarily modest. They perceived something that the rest of us did not. There were millions of conservatives in America who considered ABC, NBC and CBS to be far too liberal. There was an appetite for news and opinion with a conservative spin. And again, the American public got what it wanted. Fox was so successful that it encouraged NBCUniversal to turn its cable channel, MSNBC, into a liberal counterweight to Fox. So that now we have what I like to call “news you can choose.” “Tell me your political bias, and we’ll amplify it for you.”
This is really how the liberal media elites talk to each other. Can you believe those befuddled masses that thought we were liberal? They've turned a network over to a top Republican strategist! Scandalous! All the while, Koppel and the others didn't mind at all when their elite news departments were run by Ted Kennedy aides, or even in 1996, when one George Stephanopoulos, future anchorman, joined ABC right out of the Clinton spin room. That was somehow how the "nonpartisans" operated.
Koppel concluded in a very transparently insincere fashion that when America is ruined and the public begs the media to tell them why the media didn't save them from themselves and their corrupt partisanship, Koppel will be oh so sad to tell them that they got what they deserved by overturning King Media: democratized journalism is the end of America.
Only when the combined impact of too many unemployed, too many foreclosures, too much debt, exacerbated by two undeclared and unfunded wars; only when the human and social costs of a crumbling education system and flawed healthcare system leave us wondering where and why we lost our footing as a nation, will we come to realize that why is communicated to us is vastly more important than the medium by which it is conveyed.
Some are already posing the question but one day, most Americans will point at us in the news media and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? Why did you encourage all that partisan bile and venom? Why did you feed us all that trivial crap, when so many terrible things were converging?’ And no one will be happy with the answer. Least of all those of us who offer it. “What we gave you,” we will say, “is what you wanted.”