Monday, March 16, 2009

Where Do We See It Now?

[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.)


David Sullivan said...

I love the St. Paddy's piece!!! Looking forward to reading it again.

GreenJello said...

Reminds me of the "spaghetti tree" April Fools Joke from many years back... because it was announced on tv by a super-respected person, people really believed it!

Jazz said...

I remember my parents always watching the news on CBC. Personally I've never been a news junkie and I tend to get my news from several different sources - the 10pm news not being one of them.

As for whether this fragmentation is a good thing, I think to a certain extent it probably is since so many different opinions are available now. For example it's easy today to get the French take on something happening in France, rather than only what the news outlets of your particular country print.

As you noted Murrow was for a lot of people their main source of news. What if he had been a rabid fan of McCarthy? Might things have gone way differently since there would basically not have been any dissenting voices?

lime said...

these are all thought provoking questions.

i think there is good and bad in not having a single near universally respected source of news. it certainly requires greater vigilance on the part of the individual to be well-informed. at the same time the vast array of information outlets can be so daunting. i think it leads some people to stick their heads in the sand and others become consumed by it all. Somewhere in the middle is a person who looks at news sources which cover things from a variety of perspectives in more than one medium.

i rarely watch the evening news because so much of it seems so watered down. the newspaper, online sources and BBC radio are my main sources.

Anonymous said...

I try to get my news from the alternative media and sopmetimes watch the mainstream media to see what they leave out.,which is alot. Shows like democracy now or other online sources seem to cover many more subjects then the mainstream media do.

Sandi McBride said...

My dad loved Mr. Murrow...and I couldn't wait to get the DVD of Good Night and Good Luck and take it to him. We watched it together and at the end of it, Daddy looked at me and said "he was always my hero". Being from Equador and having worked in Panama and Cuba before immigrating to the US and becoming a licensed MD in Virginia in the years of McCarthyism, Mr.Murrow was the one sane voice Daddy heard in a sea of insanity. I understood perfectly.

Sam said...

I'm not personally aware of there being such a person here in UK - maybe David Frost.

The fragmentation of news sources is probably a good thing - there was never a guarantee that you were hearing the truth. I often 'cross-examine' news stories by searching for news stories online to get different perspectives.

I get most of my news from The Guardian (online and printed) or BBC both being sources that I trust.

Hope that clears things up from this side of the Atlantic!

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Suldog, Sir, checking in with Sam from this side of the pond.

A child of the Sixties, I get my news online and via non-tabloid journalism - Our 'broadsheets', which also tend to tow political lines, it is fair to say.

I sift and sort the news from that variety of sources, I also occasionally watch CNN and FOX, plus Euronews (Sky) via digital channels.

I only heard of Ed Murrow (sadly) through Lindsey Buckingham's Murrow Turning Over (In His Grave) - I guess an indictment of current media workings... on the Fleetwood Mac (2000) Say You Will album...

David Frost is being held up as a bit of an icon, owing to his interview with Nixon and the new film, but he was never a rottweiler, in my opinion...

For those that aim to get the better of politicians in their interviews, we could cite the following journos, (my opinion only): (Newspapers) (the late) Paul Foote; (TV) Jon Snow, John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman, various Dimblebys, the late Sir Robin Day, and Andrew Marr - Of course, there are others who would decry any or all of these as having their own political (or other) agenda to promote. Which of them could be classed as wholly independent of any bias, I could not say.

I am mulling on your other questions, Sir. Very interesting post, and you are very self-deprecating!

M. Bail said...

I get my news from a variety of sources, and I tend to be a news junkie. I think it's very important that the news not be delivered by only one source. It keeps newsmakers more honest when they are unable to control all of the sources. It's easier to control how the news is spun and delivered if there is only one source, no?

I have to say, though, that I was disappointed how the entire media machine from top to bottom assumed such a kiss-ass attitude with regard to the disastrous behavior of the Bush administration, at least for the first 6 years. I suspect that 911 paralyzed everyone in the media to the point where they couldn't figure out how to behave. It was uncharted territory and the media functioned in a stupor for years, dutifully approving and not questioning the administration's actions.

But overall, I think choice and variety are the keys when it comes to information. What if Cronkite hadn't been conscientious? I love being able to understand how other countries view the same issues. We're no longer isolated. We're no longer spoon fed only the information that a few people want us to know. It's still not perfect, but it's harder to hide information these days.

Anyway, that's my long-winded 2 cents. Btw, I voted for your blog, too!

A Woman Of No Importance said...

I believe the fragmentation of news sources is a good thing, for then you have the possibility of weighing up various journos' takes on important news items, rather than just accepting one source.

In the UK, we have relied heavily upon the BBC as a reliable news source, but this was sullied in the 80's by politicians who wanted to sanitise the facts about the Falklands war. Whether it ever recovered its impartiality is doubtful.

As for politics, perhaps as with the US (until recently and Obama's victory), there is a huge apathy in the British public...

The educated chatterati here laugh about the 'knee-jerk' opinions and reactions of those who live and breathe the 'Daily Mail', (although that encompasses much of Middle England and suburbia) and those who devour 'The Sun' newspapers.

A whole bunch of young people here probably take their opinions and influence from TV 'zelebs' (Z-List Celebs), and famous footballers, or footballers' WAGs (wives and girlfriends), because it's easy and because they prefer not to have to think too much about things... That sounds embittered, and I'm not, but I do despair a little, Suldog.

CSD Faux Finishing said...

Interesting & thought provoking questions Jim. I am certainly looking forward to coming back to read through comments from your international readership. Should proove very eye opening. just as an aside, as a Gen-X'r the Cronkite equivalent (in my eyes at least) was Tim Russert. I truly miss his reporting.

Anonymous said...

Had to read it twice, looking for the joke, Suldog...very interesting post and a number of folk have already given my answer. We live in a very 'I'm alright, Jack] society these days, even more so now most of us are finding times very hard. The truth, as I see it is that a huge percentage of the population have little or no confidence in ANY politician. We have been lied to, cheated out of our pensions, bled dry with taxation and are inundated by tales of corruption and scandals that could have graced Nero's Rome.

We have Jeremy Paxman who is a terrier when interviewing politicians, and even he can hardly get a straight answer. Richard Dimbleby was probably the one broadcaster in whose words, everyone except the extreme left and right had total belief.

As for the newspapers,I don't think any of them are without bias.

Michelle H. said...

Great post by opening up dialogue by non-american readers to discuss this topic! And I'm glad I'm not the only person who admits to being ignorant concerning another culture's experiences about the news. And this is just one more reason I keep coming back to read this blog.

Shrinky said...

I seem to recall Sir Robin Day had a lot of clout to sway political opinion with the British public in his time - and as Sam also so rightly pointed out, David Frost did manage to ruffle many feathers, mainly because he was seen as a young upstart daring to question the halls of power. Up until then, the media seemed content to largely turn a blind eye to the personal shortcomings of individual politicians. Remember, we still have a Monarchy, up until very recently the common man in the street "knew his place" far too well to question his "betters". Politicians were raised and kept on their pedasils at all costs. The BBC worked hand in hand with the government to ensure it stayed that way.

I tend to tune into the BBC news as I get breakfast together. I don't read any newspapers now, though when I did it was usually The Guardian. When I was young and idealistic I was a card carrying member of the Green Party, I switched to Lib Dem when I still had a UK vote. I became pretty disenchanted with the whole political system over there. Moving to Craggy Island has renewed my hope in Politics. Being self governing with such a small population, I feel my voice over here does actually can count for something, we know and meet our politicians face to face, they are accountable.

Now, will you kindly stop making my brain bleed and promise to post something light and fluffy next time, please? (Wink)

Buck said...

But, if you told someone that Cronkite had said it, you were quoting the least-impeachable source available.

Until Tet. I'll hold THAT against Cronkite until the day I die. Not coincidentally, I date the beginning of the Decline and Fall of American Media to 2/27/68. YMMV.

I get my news from multiple sources, but I ALWAYS watch The News Hour w/Jim Lehrer. I don't watch the shout-fests on any cable outlet. I read the NYT every day, the WaPo most days, and The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times a few times a week. I also read blogs on both sides of the divide, but heavily in favor of the right-wing side of the house. I take issue not only with what the Left says, but the way they say it.

My family listened to the BBC World Service every night while we were stationed overseas for seven years in the '50s. Auntie was pretty danged monolithic (in the English speaking world outside of America) at that time while being reasonably objective. I don't see much objectivity in the Beeb today, though, and there are lotsa Brits who agree, given the criticism and "special commissions" we've seen over the last couple of years.

Finally: I think the loss of newspapers will be a Bad Thing, but it WILL happen. And I'm not ready to make a value judgment on news-source fragmentation. It is what it is. What worries ME is the general tendency of the American public to believe what they're told. Witness: Obama.

Suldog said...

Thanks for the varied opinions and education for me concerning foreign media. It's all appreciated.

The point about things turning out differently had Murrow been a McCarthyite is a good one to consider. You have to assume the heroism of your one source if you think that one source is a good thing. If you cannot assume that, then multiple sources - and the more, the better - make sense.

Buck - Can you elaborate concerning Cronkite and TET? I was only 11 at the time, and a first-hand history would be instructive, no doubt.

Janet said...

Good lord, Sul, making me think on a MONDAY. How rude.

I have never been one for watching the news, on any station, but my family has always been partial to NBC. I don't have TV at all now, so I get most news from the MSNBC home page. However, we listen to NPR and they air the BBC news every evening. It's sometimes startling to hear reports from the BBC of things going on in America that no one in America chose to mention.

I think since there are no Cronkites anymore, it's probably a good thing there are so many sources for news. Of course, it can go both ways. Either it will keep everybody honest, or you just won't know who to believe.

I do read newspapers when I get access to a good one (Kentucky papers don't qualify). But I can't read entire newspapers online. I need newsprint on my hands.

Carolina said...

Our source of news in the Netherlands are the NOS and RTL4 news for unbiased and objective reporting. The NOS being the oldest and probably highest regarded.

With regard to your question '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': I can't recall a politician being brought down, but I do remember the downfall of the low-alcohol Buckler beer! Thanks to a comedian! 'On 31 December 1989, Dutch cabaret performer Youp van 't Hek referred negatively to Buckler beer several times during his New Year cabaret show, resulting in the beer being withdrawn from the Dutch market.' (source Wikipedia).
He said things like '...what do I mean by the common man? Well, I mean a Dutch dickhead, an arsehole, a Buckler-drinker....', which resulted in a huge drop in Buckler-sales.
Talking about influential...

I listen to and watch the news, mainly NOS, and read a newspaper. And I often watch a late night news talkshow titled Pauw & Witteman

Chris Stone said...

i think more than the media, or information source, the educational background of the american public is the problem. critical thinking doesn't seem to be a priority. reasoned argument with different perspectives is productive only if, first of all, its reasoned and the problem debated is clearly identified.

i heard a story about how sweden not only bailed out their banks, but their newspapers too. they felt it important to have a well informed public. *a story i heard, of course, on NPR.*

Jinksy said...

Auntie Beeb supplies enough news for me - especially with middle-of -the night, world service broadcasts. Hopefully, they send you back to sleep as soon as you've heard enough...

Buck said...

Can you elaborate concerning Cronkite and TET? I was only 11 at the time, and a first-hand history would be instructive, no doubt.

The Reader's Digest version: Cronkite depicted Tet as a huge loss for the ARVN and Allied Forces (US, Australia, Korea, et al), when it was a classic VICTORY. The North Vietnamese thought they would never recover from the debacle and the Viet Cong ceased to exist as a fighting force. They got their assess kicked, in other words. Enter Uncle Walter and the whole shootin' match (no pun) went to Hell in the proverbial hand basket.

The Wiki, for all its flaws, has a good article on the subject.

FWIW... I was 23 years old at the time and had many friends serving in the RVN, all of whom came back... Thank God.

Pat - Arkansas said...

From the U.S. side:
I've been reading your blog for almost a year,Suldog, and I've been alternately amused, slightly shocked, slightly offended, informed, touched, etc., etc., sometimes all in the same post. I read this post with extreme interest; when I reached the end, I gave it an "A+".

When I was a kid during WW II, I listened to Edward R. Murrow's radio broadcasts, and watched him on early TV. Walter Cronkite became a staple in my news viewing from the time he first appeared on network TV until he retired. I think I teared up a little when he left. I don't remember the TET episode, so will defer to Buck and Wikipedia but, in my opinion, no one has ever come close to taking Cronkite's place as a person whose reporting of the news could be trusted. Oh... as to Bill O'Reilly, this particular centrist thinks he totally psychotic.

I currently read the Sunday (only) newspaper, watch no network newscasts except for periodic visits to Jim Lehrer and an BBC World News (thank God for cable TV). I read the major news items at Internet sources such as Yahoo and AOL, then pursue those of interest through other internet sources.

I've read with interest all the comments to this point, and will continue to check back here for others.

Well done, Mr. Sullivan.

Gennasus said...

I read your post earlier and was going to comment but, it was Monday, I was going to work and just wasn't ready to think. Since then, you have had a number of comments from this part of the world with a few of them saying pretty much what I would. However, I'll still add my tuppence worth.

I can't really think of any one person involved in someone's downfall. Some of the journalists already mentioned (Jeremy Paxman, David Dimbleby etc) are not afraid to challenge some politicians but they don't really have the power to take anyone down.

Having a greater range of news sources may mean that people can't be bothered looking for alternative opinions and just take the first one at face value. Apathy reigns in the UK, many just want things presented to them in a neat, condensed package. (Maybe that includes me?!)

I do watch TV news, the BBC usually, which is supposed to be impartial. I think it generally does a good job....but who knows for sure?! I also get a daily newspaper, it's a local one but also covers world affairs and I don't think it has any particular political leanings. I rarely use the internet for news.

Now, enough of this seriousness. Make me laugh tomorrow.

Angie Ledbetter said...

I've tried not to watch or listen to too much news lately because it's just about all depressing. But when I do tune in, it's to Internet news sources, the local paper and FOX News so I get a balanced sense of "things."

Cath said...

Wow there are some great views here! I am in the main with A Woman of No Importance and Moannie.
I get most of my news from the BBC website. The BBC are often accused of bias and sometimes I agree with that but on the whole I think I get a fair overall view of things from them. I occasionally checkin via TV but again it is BBC and sometimes Sky news. I don't buy the newpapers. They all are aligned to one political party of another.
None middle of the road as far as I can see.

The beauty of internet news is the ability to hop over to another country's news site - which is always useful. ;0)

The interviewrs cited in UK have had a past history of good interviewing, one or two rottweillers (not Frost really - more Paxman) but many of these old stalwarts are gone now, or going. There isn't anyone quite like they used to be.

As for whether it is a good thing or not - well, anyone holding a monopoly are very powerful, as has been seen. The alternative doesn't give us an unbiased view. But was the singular view ever really unbiased anyway? I doubt it.

Rosaria Williams said...

I'm jumping in to debate the status of our news gathering and sharing industries. I have a blog that examines many issues both from a personal point of view and from the agreed upon 'public' understanding.

I shall be in touch.

Jeni said...

I subscribe to our local newspaper although I don't like it -mainly because of their lousy -and lack of -coverage of local news pertaining to the end of the county where I live. I read the newspaper -a daily -from the county adjacent to ours, daily, online. I prefer to read newspapers as that being a piece of paper in my hand but can't afford to do subscriptions to both entities. TV news -as a general rule, we usually watch the local CBS station's local news and just follow through then with the CBS evening news although in the morning, I try to watch the Today show -(NBC news there). I rarely watch FOX because I just can't handle the likes of O'Reilly, Hanratty and the rest of the right-wingers there. I don't consider myself to be a left-wingnut per se as I tend to be on the moderate side of most things. But then, I don't take everything I see/hear/read as always being totally gospel either. Would that qualify as trying to be somewhat objective? But your comment about Walter Cronkite -now him, I did take what he said as "Gospel." And I remember Edward R.Murrow's broadcasting in the 50's -always like and respected him even though I was just a child listening to him. Gave me expectations maybe of what I would like to see/hear in broadcasting -and journalism today.

i beati said...

If you call Florida outside the US ok you won't moderate me- but I can't watch much news for more than a second- all hand fed and bought mostly-

no depth of conviction...though Jon Stewart was moderately fun this week.

Susan English Mason said...

Congrats on the mention in POTD.

La Belle Esplanade said...

If the primary source is repsected and dilligent in upholding its mission of reporting the news, there is no problem. Cronkite and Murrow may have had their biases, but they did the research and reorted the facts while adding their interpretation. I see the opposite round of process today.

I read the Globe, but don't reatain any of its fluff, which I consider a waste of my eyesight. This is most of the paper. I do read the Wall Street Journal, which does have an agenda but also seems to be largely dispassionate. They have been warning about the current state of the economy for years. I don't find online news sites navigatable, so I appreciate the serendipity of hard paper in which I am able to ignore or gloss over the filler or what doesn't interest me.

I took a date to see "Goodnight and Good Luck." It wasn't very romantic but it did keep us talking about serious subjects afterwards. I took another date to see "Frost/Nixon." Same story. I would like to think that the truth comes out regardless of the source, but, in my heart of hearts, this is probably just a pipe dream. I hear more about some pop star beating up another than I do about what drives this nation's future prosperity. We live in serious times but there are still plenty of diversions to waylay our attention. Overall, I think a primary source for news is good, but how do you make people pay attention?

That is the conundrum and I don't think having only three networks is the answer. They were not halcyon days and even if they were, there is no going back. Hopefully good reporting will trump tripe. You pose good questons for which I don't have an answer. Nor do I think anyone does. We can only go with the flow. So this is a few paragraphs without a conclusion. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that reporting of Vietnam was mentioned. That seemed to be about the time the media lost a great deal of credibility with the public - or at least a certain generation.
Since we rarely depend on tv reporting to form our opinions and watch infrequently, it's interesting that when we do watch, the commentary is frequently verbatim as you switch from network to network. Very little real reporting seems to be accomplished. Perhaps they became too accustomed to having press releases handed to them from the previous White House or too fearful of loosing access with critical reporting. The bottom line has driven reporting to the gutter in many instances. And sports coverage and gossip - the latest divorce, out of wedlock birth - now consumes much air time. Sports coverage is great, but when it squeezes out the rest of the world, is it news? Is the latest unfolding Anna Nicole Smith saga newsworthy?
It is also disappointing to watch CSPAN and hear a 'news report' that bears no resemblance to the event or testimony.
PBS and NPR have provided some great reporting on topics that shouldn't be relegated to soundbytes.
Not only has a great deal of professionalism been lost, but frequently the truth.
Although I remember the filtered Vietnam reporting, the most egregious was the lead up to the Iraq invasion. The international media did a splendid job reporting and questioning. The yellow cake papers were discredited as forgeries long before Ambassador Jo Wilson's NYT OpEd. The aluminum tubes were explained.
Even now, the international media is covering that story as it unfolds in England and Israel's attack on Gaza in greater detail than the US media would allow.
Because the bottom line controls content, little dissent or alternative opinion is being heard and even less reporting is being witnessed.
If you step back and watch the major mouthpieces, you'll find a lockstep of issues tackled simultaneously, frequently with similar rhetoric. One might believe it originates from the same think tank.