Making News

By Jack Atherton - email/bio

My last column The Way Ahead: How We Got Here tried placing this presidential race in historical perspective by tracing changes in liberalism and conservatism over the last 200 years (!) Maybe that exercise in chutzpah shed a little light on the two major party candidates. But there's another major player in this election. It won't be on the ballot, but this group may sway your vote more than all the speeches, debates and commercials combined. We're talking about the media.

In a moment of startling frankness he doubtless came to regret, Newsweek's assistant managing editor and political writer Evan Thomas said in July 2004 on the PBS program Inside Washington:

"Let's talk a little media bias here. The media I think want (Democratic presidential nominee John) Kerry to win. And I think they're going to portray Kerry and (John) Edwards - I'm talking about the establishment media, not FOX, but - they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and all, there's going to be this glow about them that some, is going to be worth collectively, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points." (emphasis added)

Even if you don't buy the full 15 point spread, this estimate from a prominent member of the "establishment media" came as no surprise.  Last year I taught a course at the University of Cincinnati on the history of electronic media. Some of the material from that course appeared in this article, first published in Cincinnati Gentlemen magazine:

1800: Newspapers sympathetic to Thomas Jefferson brand John Adams a tyrant and warn that if he's re-elected, political enemies will be imprisoned. At the same time newspapers supporting Adams link Jefferson to his slave Sally Hemings and warn that if he is elected, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced".

1968: Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America", concludes a documentary on the Tet offensive in Vietnam by telling the nation, "We are mired in stalemate." President Johnson reportedly then tells an aide, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." A month later, Johnson announces that he will not seek re-election.

2007: President Bush and the leaders of both parties support a comprehensive immigration bill. The legislation is expected to be fast-tracked through Congress by Memorial Day. Instead, an avalanche of protest triggered by the "alternative media" -- talk radio, cable news and the blogosphere -- literally shuts down Senate phone lines. The bill is killed. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi complains, "Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem."

I would contend that 2008 is looking a lot like 1800, and that's both good and not so good. For most of our history, journalism was understood by its audience to reflect the widely differing perspectives of publishers and practitioners. Readers of a Federalist newspaper knew that its viewpoint -- expressed not just in editorials but in news reports as well -- would bear little resemblance to that of a Democratic-Republican paper. A century later, readers knew that a Hearst or McCormick paper reflected views of the world fundamentally different from those published by Ochs or Pulitzer. Readers who wanted to make up their own minds could read more than one paper.

Things, I believe, changed with the advent of electronic media and the Federal Communications Commission. Private printing presses were (theoretically) available to anyone, but broadcast rights required federal licenses. Even before the Fairness Doctrine was adopted in 1949, many radio stations felt some pressure to ensure fairness.

But what really changed most people's notion of news was television, particularly national television. With only three major networks, all based in New York, audiences viewed TV news as providing a different sort of news than they got from their partisan papers. Television news, personified by avuncular but authoritative anchors, supposedly presented non-partisan "objective" journalism. This idea, I believe, even affected ideas about print journalism. The New York Times, a Republican paper that moved leftward in 1936, came to be considered by many "the newspaper of record". Time and Newsweek magazines achieved a similar luster.

Walter Cronkite's influence in 1968 can thus be understood as a product of television's influence at the height of its dominance. But in the next year, President Nixon first spoke of the "silent majority". Conservatives who felt shut out from the "mainstream media" found voice in the 1980s through a medium that was supposed to be on its last legs. With the overturning of the Fairness Doctrine, which had made it risky for broadcasters to air partisan talk radio, Rush Limbaugh revived AM radio nationwide. The FOX cable news channel then began presenting programs that it claimed were "fair and balanced" -- meaning that they balanced out the alleged liberal bias of the mainstream media. And, most recently, the Internet blogosphere has spun off innumerable outlets for opinion and investigation of every political stripe.

Though I work in broadcast television, as a citizen I would contend that this unregulated, unmediated marketplace of ideas -- providing dialogue, dialectic and, yes, at times downright drivel -- is invigorating our body politic. However, there is a danger.

Uncle Walter and his colleagues gathered us all around one electronic hearth. We might not have agreed with every opinion that was expressed or merely implied in their presentation of "The News" but it gave us common ground for debate. Now all too often conservatives get their news primarily from conservative outlets, while liberals listen only to liberals. This can be polarizing. We cannot talk, much less reach consensus, if we see the world from diametrically opposed viewpoints.

What to do? When I'm lucky enough to address groups -- adults and students -- I urge them to get their news from as many different sources as possible. Read newspapers and watch local TV (bearing in mind that national news reports for almost all papers and stations come primarily from the Associated Press and a handful of other like-minded services), listen to talk radio, click on columns and blogs of all types on the Internet ... and take comfort from the fact that, at the end of their illustrious lives, Adams and Jefferson once again became friends.