Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Media, Politics — Rick Moran @ 11:00 am

As I have said many times over the nearly 5 years I’ve been blogging, I am not a journalist. I have no desire to be a journalist, to be thought of as a journalist, to think like a journalist, or ever become a journalist in the future.

It’s not that I hate journalists. With two brothers in the profession, I greatly admire their work and the work of many of their colleagues. I am perhaps a little more sensitive to the difficulties in bringing the news to the public than some, while a little harsher than others when laziness, or stupidity lead to erroneous or horribly biased stories.

I am a firm believer that much of what the right sees as bias in mainstream journalism is simple laziness on the part of reporters. It takes an effort to be as objective as possible and many journalists either fail to try or simply don’t want to be bothered with it. This is due to an underlying arrogance in many of the more prestigious newsrooms that feeds egos too full of self-importance to recognize how they are betraying their craft by allowing personal biases or animus to color the presentation of the news.

I believe that this explains why a solid, experienced journalist like Walter Cronkite, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92, may have become the “most trusted man in America” but who ultimately discarded his life’s work to become an arbiter rather than a purveyor of news.

The distinction is important. As Managing Editor at CBS, it was Cronkite who helped choose the stories, shaped them, had a big say in when they would be slotted on the newscast, and ultimately, used his on-air personae to impart an emotional context to what was being reported.

This, despite the fact that Cronkite was a newsman’s newsman. He worked in city newsrooms, and for the wire service UPI where he became a famous war correspondent, risking his life several times to get the story. When Ed Murrow called in 1950, Cronkite moved to the best news team on television and began anchoring important events like the political conventions. His coverage blew away NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley and he became a star.

Cronkite took over the anchor chair from Douglas Edwards in 1962 and the change from journalist to “Uncle Walter” was not immediate. But over the years, as TV news on the “Big Three” networks grew in importance, Cronkite’s editorial decisions - whether he intended to or not - not only shaped the nation’s agenda, but also subtly gave the news a “point of view.” Racism is bad. Viet Nam is wrong. The Space Program is good and can do nothing wrong.

We are used to this kind of “drama” today where the news perhaps doesn’t take sides overtly but nevertheless contains stories that through visuals and copy, impart the “correct” way for the audience to interpret the news. This is news as show biz not as political advocacy. In order to capture eyeballs for the 3 or 4 minutes most people will watch cable news at a time, editors spice the stories with built in conflict — good guys, bad guys, heroes, and villains. In many respects, they play to the ingrained biases of their audience rather than creating their own.

Print media isn’t much different. Except for the New York Times, which one can hardly make a case in defending their overt advocacy for liberals and Democrats, there is a better balance at many newspapers in reporting stories. But the way the story is usually told also contains many of the same elements of drama, and leading the reader by the nose to a particular conclusion. This makes for more interesting reading. It hardly makes for good journalism.

The tale told by two disasters reveals the difference between journalism and show biz. The reporting of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and the coverage of Katrina in 2005 bookend two eras in journalism where the primary function of the reporter changed from news gatherer to newsmaker. With only phone lines that connected the country in 1963, the big three networks did as good a job as was possible in rounding up eyewitnesses, switching to their Dallas affiliate (where a young Dan Rather got noticed by CBS brass), running archival Kennedy footage, interviewing the rich and powerful in Washington and New York, doing the man in the street gig, and generally scrambling like hell to fill air time suddenly denuded of commercials.

It was hit and miss coverage - and it was riveting. The salient point was that the networks never lost sight of the story - Kennedy’s death. Sometimes it was trivial. At times, sublime. But the reporters and anchors allowed the natural drama of Kennedy’s death to drive coverage.

Contrast that with Katrina coverage in 2005. Despite satellites, cell phones, lightweight portable cameras, and a lot of “gee whiz” technology, what was the Katrina coverage about? What drove it?

It certainly wasn’t about the victims. It wasn’t about the effect of the storm on New Orleans. Nor was it about how the city was responding to the disaster.

The storyline of Katrina coverage - even on Fox News - was the lack of response by the Bush Administration. Every news item - from the rumors of babies being raped in the Superdome to the looting - was placed in the context of a Bush failure. Villains were made out of Director Brown and Bush. Heroes were made out of Mayor Nagin for his emoting on national television and sometimes the reporters themselves who never failed to pat their colleagues on the back for enduring such wretched working conditions.

The difference between the two eras in journalism were giants like Cronkite who created a whole new job for themselves; the National Sage. In this capacity, the anchors decided which stories were important, which should be ignored, and how to shape the news so that people were informed “the right way.” The key is that they took this responsibility on to themselves. While very cognizant of their influence, they sought to use it to promote their idea of the “greater good.” This was not done as overtly as it is today, but it had a greater impact because so many more people were watching.

It was perhaps the nature of the medium that this should have been so. But to have the kind of “news as drama” filter down to newspapers is one of the primary reasons for their decline today. People used to read newspapers to find out what was going on, not how to think of an issue. Perhaps they figure if they wanted that kind of news reporting, they may as well watch the cable nets. At least they have film and attractive people to read the news to them.

There is no denying Walter Cronkite was a great man. But for what he and others did to the craft of journalism, he should be criticized, not commended today.


  1. Hi Rick

    One trivial point - Rather was noticed about a year before for his coverage of a hurricane or other weather event. His controversial scoop on Kennedy - he was I think the first to say on air that Kennedy was dead - solidified it.

    The main criticism I have is that you focus on personalities rather than money. Cronkite and his generation were essentially news men (and women) which was the source of their strength. When Cronkite took over CBS news it was a 15 minute segment thrown in as a public affairs product or a public service. When 60 Minutes came along the networds discovered that news wasn’t a “loss leader” and could be profitable. It was cheaper to produce than a “show” and could actually get ratings. That is when news became “news and information” and began the slide toward what it is today. Had Cronkite not been part of a brand he would have remained more like John Cameron Swayze on the old Camel Cavalcade of News and not “Uncle Walter” a brand positioned and defended by CBS.

    Comment by Jim — 7/18/2009 @ 11:40 am

  2. Rick,

    I think we should distinguish journalists, who are a broad class of people who write about public affairs, from reporters. All reporters are journalists but not all journalists are reporters.

    Right Wing Nut House and OTB are, in essence, online journals in which we chronicle our reactions to things going on in the world that interest us. If we’re not journalists, then what about the legion of people who do feature commentary in magazines but don’t strictly report the news?

    Comment by James Joyner — 7/18/2009 @ 1:01 pm

  3. I think the biggest problem with reporters is they don’t know anything. All the news is driven by pop psychology and personality. I can’t think of a mainstream reporter who actually seems to know something about science. It is almost as bad with economics.

    Comment by Mark_0454 — 7/18/2009 @ 3:46 pm

  4. The problem with journalism today is a simple numbers game. Like academe, the field is simply overrun with Democrats and leftists. This, then, feeds on itself as leftist hires leftist, and they become ever more narrow and anti-intellectual in their world view. Surrounded at home and work by like-minded folks, they are never challenged, never have to defend a position, and thus become unable to distinguish opinion from fact, and erroneously assured that their views are mainstream — and “correct.” A national election is held, and you have national journalists saying “I can’t believe George W. Bush won. I don’t know a single person who voted for him.” Cronkite changed as his profession changed. As it became perfectly acceptable to assume that “everyone” felt the same way he did — because nearly everyone in his world did — Cronkite started letting the water cooler talk spill over into his public talk. Like so many others in his profession, he didn’t think his leftist views were all that startling, because, after all, everyone he knew felt the same way, and for liberal elitists like Cronkite, “everyone I know” means “everyone.”

    Comment by Anon — 7/18/2009 @ 5:12 pm

  5. Cronkite was respected in part because there was no reference point or alternative views to observe or contrast his bias. One major problem with the liberal media bias of the Cronkite era you mention was their blindness to their own subjectivity and the myth-creation of an ‘objective media’, when in fact it was anything but. They could get away with it because the liberal media had a virtual monopoly on national inside-the-beltway news for many decades.

    Yet through a historial lens, we can review how for example CBS / 60 minutes went after Genl Westmoreland, Cronkite’s famous declaration that Tet was a defeat for the US (a dubious claim now we know that it decimated the VietCong), etc.

    Now that we live in a world of a plethora of news and opinion sources, anyone can triangulate where any particular news source is, in terms of their reliability, objectivity, and bias. If you have any questions, you can always go to http://newsbusters.org or other media ‘watchdog’ places to see what critics have to say about it.

    Comment by Travis Monitor — 7/18/2009 @ 7:35 pm

  6. I liked the sympathetic article but it appears everybody in the comments section shifts into automatic when the term ‘media’ is mentioned. Ok, maybe we should clarify: there are more self proclaimed conservatives in the military than in academia. That is just because they feel more comfortable in that field. Period, that’s it. If there is one thing that I find truly pathetic, it is us whining about the elitist liberal media. Get over it and write a decent article (that’s why I’m here because I actually like the quality of the articles). Don’t like the NYT? Big deal, but at least they know how to write an article. With all his faults Cronkite was a good man.

    Comment by funny man — 7/18/2009 @ 10:49 pm

  7. “Journalism” isn’t dead … “reporting” is dead. A trade that used to rely on accurately reflecting the facts of events normally out of sight of most people has turned instead into painting the picture as the “journalist” would wish it to be. It is the difference between a photograph and an impressionist painting.

    There are no more reporters, only “journalists”.

    The REAL problem, though, is a lack of diversity of agenda. Papers were always biased but you had access to several. Ben Franklin was an absolute scoundrel when it came to “journalism” often fabricating “letters to the editor” to make them appear to come from a reader. He would also slant the real letters he did publish making his view seem the more popular.

    The real problem is a lack of alternative points of view in print and broadcast media.

    Comment by crosspatch — 7/19/2009 @ 3:23 pm

  8. To confer mere laziness on the main stream media as the reason for poor reporting reflects a lazy thought process on the part of the author. He has family members who are part of this group. They can’t be bad, just lazy.

    Comment by Annymous — 7/20/2009 @ 10:35 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress