The news industry is in chaos. Newspaper circulation is nose-diving. The reign of the iconic network anchors ended over the last 12 months. “Nightline” as we know it will end its 25-year run tonight. The expansion of the Internet has resulted not just in the free flow of information but also of misinformation and political self-segregation. Partisan skirmishes are on the rise and trust in media is on the decline.
To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, “Where have you gone, Ed Murrow?” The World War II radio correspondent turned founding father of television news, Edward R. Murrow, has long been lionized by journalists, but recently returned to the national spotlight as the subject of the movie Good Night and Good Luck, which details his struggles with both the CBS network and Senator McCarthy. Despite his death 40 years ago, Murrow remains a subject of fascination and debate. Some remember Murrow the embodiment of integrity and independence, others view him as a thinly veiled partisan in the mold of his successor to the CBS anchor chair Dan Rather.
In fact, Murrow was not a registered Democrat or Republican. Before the McCarthy conflict, he was considered an anti-communist. He supported, for example, the execution of the Rosenbergs after their conviction as spies for the Soviet Union. His colleague Charles Collingwood – quoted in the biography “Edward R. Murrow: An American Original” by Joseph Persico – said “his politics were based on old fashioned notions of morality and honor, not ideology.” Murrow’s belief that “dissent is not disloyalty” led him to take on Senator McCarthy.
In the era of the War on Terror, there is no individual domestic force equal to Murrow’s nemesis. Nonetheless, there is a creeping spirit of conformity courtesy of the partisan warriors from the left and right. Legions of credible accusations of liberal bias in the media have been detailed in former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg’s 1996 book “Bias,” and most recently in the CBS broadcast of falsified documents that led to Dan Rather’s downfall. A backlash of sorts is now underway with the increased influence of the right. This partisan back-and-forth may have the healthy of effect of balancing the excesses of popular culture, but unchecked it also threatens to drag the news industry back to the 19th century, when newspapers functioned as wholly owned subsidiaries of political parties.
The end of Nightline in its current form tonight marks a new casualty in these wars – the show’s anchor, Ted Koppel, was a steady throwback to an earlier era, avoiding flash and celebrity. Attempts at balanced analysis just aren’t considered cool anymore – it takes too long to get to the truth.
Digital enthusiasts write accurately about how the Internet is killing the last generation’s news delivery. But the free flow of information has also spawned a self-segregation that allows news consumers to seek out only the partisan sites that reaffirm their political prejudices. Politicians have encouraged this trend, drumming home the message of media bias to diminish the credibility of their critics, while the administration simultaneously paid off certain supposedly independent conservative commentators – such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher – to echo its views in public debate. In this environment, the messenger of the media is quick to be viewed as an enemy to the national interest instead of a protector. At the same time, any criticism of the White House is too often reflexively dismissed as “liberal.”
The result of this dizzying spin cycle is that Americans increasingly distrust all news organizations. A Pew Center for People and Press poll this summer found that, by a margin of 73% to 21%, Americans believe that news organizations are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations,” instead of being “pretty independent.” Republicans increasingly believe that the press is excessively critical of America (67% now compared to 47% in 2003) while the percentage of Democrats who believed this declined to 24% from 32%, evidence of a deepening partisan divide.
But it is interesting that at a time when even the unedited footage of C-SPAN is seen as suspect, viewers have increased faith in the integrity of self-described “fake news.” The inheritors of Ed Murrow’s mantle just might be comedians. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central has emerged as among the most widely watched and trusted news outlets for young Americans – not just because it is funny, but also because it is an equal opportunity offender. The media manipulation by professional partisans on both sides has become so predictable and powerful that humor has emerged as the last best way to cut through the spin cycle. Viewers’ intelligence is respected even as they are entertained, and between laughs the civic backbone begins to straighten a little bit.
The Daily Show’s new spin-off, the Colbert Report, hosted by former Daily Show lead correspondent Stephen Colbert kicks this formula up a notch with a character-driven satire. Simultaneously smug and clueless, Mr. Colbert skewers the more-patriotic-than-thou-crowd, saying “I love the truth; it’s facts I don’t like,” while denouncing reference books as “elitist – constantly telling us what is or isn’t true or what did or didn’t happen.” If humor can help re-balance politics by pointing out the absurdities of what currently passes for debate, it is infinitely preferable to another shrill partisan fight.
As the news industry evolves toward a new era, we could do far worse than looking to Ed Murrow again for guidance. Murrow believed that “to be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.” The hard fact is that truth doesn’t come tailor-made for any one ideology or political party. More examples of independence and character might be what it takes for the news industry to again be trusted as the honest brokers of American politics.