TV News in the Post-Russert Era
Just as the song "American Pie" marks the untimely death of rocker Buddy Holly as the day the music died, Tim Russert's passing will be the day network news died. A long, long time ago… I can still remember when that news used to bring us together. When CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite ended his broadcasts "that's the way it is," we believed him. But that was before cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet later made us realize we were only hearing one side of the story – that Cronkite really meant
"that's the way it is according to the Beltway establishment."
We began to lose faith in the network anchors, but then, along came Tim Russert to unite us. He served as network TV's cheerful honest broker – a man with the rare ability to win the admiration of the Beltway, the Left, and the Right all at the same time.
Now that he is gone, there is no one to replace him who is trusted by all. The selection of dino-anchor Tom Brokaw as a fill-in is a step backward that proves the point. Network news will not survive.
We should mourn the loss of Tim Russert, a very fine man, but not the loss of network news. From the very beginning, there was always something a bit "un-American" about it -- and America will be better without it.
The problem with network news is that it is a child of broadcasting, which previous generations hopelessly ruined for the rest of us. Prior to broadcasting, America got all its news from newspapers, which everyone understood from the First Amendment could not be controlled or manipulated by government. But with the introduction of broadcasting, no one seemed to notice that government control of the broadcast spectrum was equivalent to government control of printing presses. Under the lame -- and demonstrably false -- excuse that the broadcast spectrum only had the capacity for a limited number of channels, the government set up the FCC, headed by political appointees to ensure broadcast frequencies were only assigned to media companies that supported what the government viewed as the "public good."
CBS founder William Paley, recognizing how valuable broadcast licenses were for entertainment programming, wanted to make sure the FCC always thought that his network supported the public good. So, he invented network TV news. It would flatter the federal government by focusing on their activities and showing them in a favorable light. Paley did not even care if his news made money -- decades would pass before CBS News
turned its first profit.
This idea of a friendly news-government relationship is the opposite of what the Founding Fathers wanted. They wanted an adversarial relationship between the press and the government. The country's founding premise was that the public must continually protect itself from governments' natural inclination to encroach on their individual rights. Jefferson wanted newspapers to serve as a "fence" to stop this encroachment and encouraged them to engage in a process of "attack and defense" with government. In fact, he established a newspaper with James Madison to bloody-up Alexander Hamilton's Federalists during Washington's administration.
You didn't notice that network news deliberately tries to be friendly to politicians? Just compare network to cable news coverage. Cable TV requires no broadcast licenses from the federal government – there's no need for these channels to keep FCC political appointees happy. Note how much hotter the political talk is on cable vs. broadcast news. On cable, you find politician-attackers like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann. On broadcast, you find suck-ups like Brian Williams and Katie Couric.
And on broadcast, you also found Tim Russert. Yes, he was a fine man, who was sincere and worked hard for his employer. But he was also a figure who never challenged the all-too-friendly relationship between the political establishment and broadcasters. In fact, he built a reputation upon it. During the Scooter Libby trial, Russert testified under oath that all his conversations with government officials were presumed to be confidential, and he never reported anything unless given explicit permission in advance. This is quite far from Jefferson's ideal of an adversarial relationship between the press and the government -- and also quite removed from our image of a dogged press that fights to protect the public.
Russert's problem, network news' problem, and every other news outlet's problem is that the premise of network news is simply wrong -- it is impossible to present a single version of the news and have it be the "correct" one. There are an infinite number of possible news stories and angles, and every choice tends to place a person or cause on the defensive. Jefferson knew this, and the only way he thought we could get to the truth was by newspapers offering a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. This is completely consistent with the concept of our nation's founding – individuals should have maximum free expression, with consent of the governed determined by debate. Many voices and debate is what we had before our cities became one-newspaper towns, and it is still what Londoners have today with their collection of partisan newspapers.
But network news' sin is even deeper than that – the single set of stories they offer are the choice of the government establishment. Once new media exposed us to alternative voices, it was inevitable that those on the Left would think that this Beltway voice was too far to the Right, while those on the Right would think it skewed Left. Now there is no Tim Russert to smooth over our differences.
So, bye-bye CBS Network eye. This may be the day network news dies, but don't despair. Hearing alternative views is as American as apple pie.