Monday, March 16, 2009
[Following the bit of overblown dissertation that follows, I’d be especially interested in hearing from my non-American readers. Your memories and views would be most welcome. This is not to say that I don’t want my countrymen (and women) to chime in. I’m certainly interested in hearing about our shared experiences. I am, however, almost wholly ignorant concerning the experiences of Canadians, Australians, denizens of Great Britain, and other non-American peoples, concerning this subject.]
This past Saturday, I had the great pleasure of being at The Boston Athenaeum, a wonderful private library and repository of art located on Beacon Hill. I had ventured there, along with MY WIFE, in order to see the movie Good Night, And Good Luck, which was having a screening in conjunction with a series of lectures on civic discourse, media and democracy.
Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism from Northeastern University, and whose blog, Media Nation, I often visit - and at which, I sometimes leave inane commentary - introduced the film.
(I say "inane" in deference to Dan, since his views are often diametrically opposed to my own. For instance, we’ve engaged in minor friendly debate concerning the role of media in politics, wherein I opined that Libertarians rarely get the coverage they deserve, while Dan seemed to espouse the theory that, if they got the coverage I wanted them to get, they would probably be even more ridiculed than they currently are. We are both baseball fans, though, and, more important, Red Sox fans, so our individual base intelligences are beyond question.)
In introducing the film, which is based upon that part of the life of Edward R. Murrow, the American broadcasting icon, wherein he railed against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt of the 1950’s, Dan spoke about the general fragmentation of today’s dissemination of news. Whereas Murrow had the advantage of being seen by a majority of American television viewers, due to his show, See It Now, being broadcast on the most powerful of what were then the only three television networks in existence, today’s newscasters have a smaller percentage of the nation as a whole viewing them. This is because of the proliferation of outlets available to the viewer (listener, reader, on-line gadabout) from which to gather information. We are no longer as homogenous a society, with concurrently homogenous newscasts to which we turn to get the “official” story.
The upshot of this fragmentation is that it is near-impossible today to imagine a lone commentator being able to deliver a similar strong blow to the reputation of a man such as McCarthy, considered now, via the long-view lens of history, to have been one of the most dangerous and divisive demagogues in the history of the republic. Without a central rallying point, at which plain folk might receive their marching orders, there is limited potential for the media to dethrone an imminent threat to our nation’s traditional liberties. It is Kennedy’s considered opinion, for instance – one with which I agree – that Richard Nixon’s disgrace and subsequent resignation, during Watergate, would have played out in a totally different fashion had it occurred today, the probability being that Nixon would have survived to finish out his full two terms as President and retired with no more blemish on his record than, say, our last two illustrious leaders, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush.
Although I was certainly familiar with Murrow’s work prior to viewing this film, he was a bit before my time. In his introduction to the film, though, Kennedy also spoke about Walter Cronkite. During the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, Cronkite was considered THE source for news for Americans. There were other practitioners to which we could turn at the time, of course. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, of NBC, come readily to mind as respected purveyors of the definitive story, as do the somewhat lesser lights John Chancellor, Howard K. Smith, and, on radio (which was already diffuse beyond repair as a national beacon) the recently-deceased Paul Harvey. But, if you told someone that Cronkite had said it, you were quoting the least-impeachable source available.
There is no such source today.
In today’s environment, the best we seem to be able to muster is a consensus among the choir being preached to. That is, those on the left end of the political spectrum may have a galvanizing focal point, and those on the right may have a similar pre-eminent talking head or two, but there is no one person you can cite who will be accepted by the great majority of Americans as being generally truthful and free from bias. The right wing do not accept Keith Olberman’s opinion as anything other than pandering, while the left see Bill O’Reilly as a near-psychotic.
And so, with the above as background, I’d like to find out your thoughts on the subject.
First, I’d especially like to know if those of you from outside of the United States had similar experiences. Did your country have one person, or perhaps one newsgathering entity, to which they most often turned in order to get their news? Is it possible that you still have such a source? Is there a particular instance you can recollect of a major political personage being brought down a peg via the reporting or commentary of one other person, such as Murrow being seen as the primary force behind the undoing of McCarthy in America?
Second, I’d like to find out your opinions concerning the fragmentation of our news sources. Is it a good thing, on the whole? Or is it a danger to a democratic republic when there is no certainty that the people within it will all be operating from a shared pool of knowledge, perhaps with the result being that too much time must be spent on explanation to others concerning your sources before meaningful debate can even begin?
Third, I’d like to ask you where you get your news. Are you a watcher of the national nightly broadcasts on a television network? Do you read newspapers? Or are you more likely to eschew such traditional sources in favor of, for example, the internet?
Please feel free to answer any or all of the questions, and in as much detail as you desire. If you decide to debate another commenter – or challenge the assumptions of Mr. Kennedy or myself - I ask that you be polite. I will delete commentary that veers into personal insult.
Thank you for your input.
(Tomorrow, I will be publishing a re-print of a piece concerning Saint Patrick’s Day. However, don’t let that serve as a signal to you that this piece, and the commentary, should be ignored from then on. Please continue any debate at your pleasure.)