Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Most Trusted Newsfeed in America?

Amongst the more solemn reflections that come with the anniversary of 9/11, I think it is natural to also reflect on how the world is different now than it was ten years ago. One thing that struck me while watching news footage was that this was the last major news event of the Jennings/Rather/Brokaw era. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, it would have been unfathomable that the nightly network news would ever be irrelevant. I remember the Nielson TV ratings being published in the newspaper every Wednesday--what was always listed were the top 10 primetime shows, the overall ratings comparison for each network...and the three nightly news broadcasts. Even as CNN rose in prominence with the first Gulf War, the networks were where people turned when big events occurred. And this was still true on 9/11--I remember watching ABC most of the day, as Peter Jennings did a marathon turn at the anchor desk. It would have been difficult to believe at the time that a few short years later he would be dead. I remember watching Dan Rather late into the night on election night 2000--it would have been difficult to believe that in a few short years he would be involved in a messy divorce from CBS, involving lawsuits and accusations of breaching journalistic ethics.

Actually, what happened to Dan Rather might be considered metaphoric for his era. I always had what could probably be called an irrational affection for Rather, for two reasons. First, I felt sorry for him when he got beat up by a deranged guy (this event occurred when I was fairly young; if a news anchor got beat up today by a deranged guy, I suspect my reaction to the incident would be more like Michael Stipe's reaction to the Rather incident). Second, when I was in fifth grade, we spent hours upon hours learning about the Kennedy assassination (it was the 25th anniversary). We watched a lot of seemingly ancient black-and-white CBS footage. I learned who Walter Cronkite was, and was amazed to see a young Dan Rather reporting on the scene from Dallas. From this moment on, I venerated Rather for the mere fact that he straddled the line between black-and-white and color, that he represented continuity, an important link to the past. And as I got older, even though I was presumably more critical in my thinking, this link actually became more, not less, important. So much of my world was changing. I became an adult, went to college, got married, moved to a different state, and through it all Dan Rather, the guy who reported live from Dallas when Kennedy was shot, was still hosting the nightly news.

And then the whole thing collapsed. Not only did Rather's tenure come to an end, it did so amidst scandal. Rather inherited Walter Cronkite's desk. Cronkite was the "most trusted man in America." And though none of the news anchors of my generation were widely given this appellation, I don't think it's a stretch to assert that they were generally trusted, at least for the majority of their respective careers. So not only has the "network news era" come to an end sometime in the last ten years, so has the assumption that there are voices of neutrality, that there are people in the media who will "tell it like it is," without advocating a specific political agenda.

Perhaps I am romanticizing the past through my childhood perceptions. Perhaps conservative middle America has always viewed East Coast-based network news with suspicion. I do remember hearing the mantra that the media had a liberal bias, and the rise of conservative talk radio in the 1990s did much to advance this suspicion in certain quarters, while also serving to create a backlash among those in other quarters, who decried the conservative bias on the radio dial. Yet I don't think it was until the 1990s when cable news emerged that large numbers of people began to view broadcast news as inherently polemical, and view that I think bled into the perception of non-cable networks. And at a certain point network news became both marginalized (I don't think I can name the main anchors for the three networks today, and I would guess that a very low percentage of people can) and more distrusted. But I would argue that it was the former that actually helped contribute to the latter, and not vice versa. As much as we probably should be suspicious of monolithic--or, more accurately, oligarchic voices, it is probably more natural to be trusting of them. Once voices are diffused into pluralism we can start to see cracks and chinks in the veneer of the TV news desk, and the chain going back to Cronkite (or Huntley and Brinkely or Edward Murrow) is severed.

I'm not sure we fully understand the political implications of this severing, much less the psychological ones. And regarding the latter, hopefully we never fully find out. For it would probably require another tragedy on the scale of 9/11 to understand how our changed consumption of news shapes our attitudes toward mind-numbing catastrophe. I'm not sure whether it can be asserted that the reporting of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, or Tom Brokaw was good for the country after 9/11--but I will say that in a cataclysm, I would trust them more than I would trust a scroll of text on a telephone.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, and Scott Pelley.

7:58 AM  

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