An essential element of the mainstream media’s myth about its own impartiality is the notion that before Fox News came along we were living in a golden age of broadcast news reporting. The days when national news was the dominion of three networks and a few major newspapers is portrayed as Eden before the fall, an era when partisanship of the kind that is now both familiar and expected was unknown. A key element to this fairy tale is the idea that the journalistic icons of the time, like CBS’s Walter Cronkite, were Olympian figures who would never stoop to play favorites or inject ideology into the news.
But this view is totally false. As media news analyst Howard Kurtz writes in the Daily Beast, a new biography of Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley spills the beans on the godlike anchorman’s unethical practices, including blatant partisanship that would make the conservative talkers on Fox and the liberals on MSNBC blush. While Kurtz still admires Cronkite in spite of his flaws, the problem here is not just that god had feet of clay after all. It’s that the truth about Cronkite throws the entire narrative of the liberal mainstream media under the bus. It wasn’t Fox that poisoned the well of journalism, as former New York Times editor Bill Keller recently alleged. Fox and other such outlets were brought into existence in an effort to balance a journalistic establishment that was already tilting heavily to the left. The real sin here is not bias or even partisanship but the pretense of fairness that Cronkite exemplified.
To confront the unvarnished truth about Cronkite is not to entirely discount his value as a television performer. There was much to admire about his news sense, and his on screen persona was a commanding and trusted presence that everyone who appears on television aspires to emulate. But the beloved Cronkite who generations of Americans grew up watching was only part of the picture. What Americans didn’t know about Cronkite gives the lie to the notion that the pre-Fox era was one in which non-partisan fairness ruled the airwaves.
Which was a function of two converging trends — for the first, allow me to quote from a big chunk of my “Atlas Mugged” article from 2007 on the birth of the Blogosphere, specifically, the segment where I wrote on the Blogosphere’s predecessor, the mass media of the 20th century. Beginning with the first commercial radio networks in the 1920s, there were a limited amount of frequencies assigned by the FCC. This hampered television as well after WWII. Add to that the cost of setting up a coast-to-coast TV network in the days before cable TV, printing newspapers and magazines, or setting up a newspaper syndicate such as AP, UPI, and Reuters, and it meant that by the early-1950s, the American public was being served up a surprisingly small amount of news and information. (It’s the Alvy Singer formula applied to the mid-century legacy media — the food here is terrible. Yes, and such small portions):
Prior to the 1920s, American newspapers and pamphleteers had a long, diverse history of vigorous, partisan debate. Which is why there are still newspapers with names like the Springfield Democrat and Shelbyville Republican.
That began to change with the rise of competition from the broadcast media. In the 1920s, because radio frequencies were finite, their allocation became heavily regulated by the federal government. As Shannon Love of the classically liberal Chicago Boyz economics blog explains, the federal government “took the radio spectrum, and instead of auctioning it off like land, essentially socialized it. And then they made the distribution of the broadcast spectrum basically a political decision.”
That, combined later with the FCC’s so-called “Fairness Doctrine—which required broadcasting networks to give “equal time” to opposing viewpoints—compelled broadcasters to maintain at least a veneer of impartiality in order to get and keep their licenses. A de facto political compromise was reached, Love says, “that the broadcast news would not be political—it would be objective and nonpartisan, was basically the idea. And then that carried over from radio to TV,” and eventually to print media. (That conceit continues to this day, as the media toss around words like “unbiased” and “objective” as easily as Dan Rather tosses off hoary, made-up Texas-isms.)
Completely dependent on the federal government, the broadcast industry’s most urgent priority became “don’t rock the boat.” And aping their broadcast competitors, newspapers began to adopt the mantle of impartiality, as well. A mass media that increasingly eschewed vibrant political debate helped FDR win four presidential elections handily, and Ike’s refusal to dismantle the New Deal in the 1950s only perpetuated its soft socialism. That era’s pervasive desire for consensus was symbolized by the ubiquitous Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his centrist politics.
By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networks’ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaper’s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).
Up until the Reagan years, Love says, “definitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.” These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed “Gray Lady” largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, “If the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, they’d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.”
Love calls this “the Parliament of Clocks”: creating the illusion of truth or accuracy by force of consensus. “Really, the only way that consumers can tell that they’re getting accurate information is to check another media source,” Love says. “And unfortunately, that creates an incentive for the media sources to all agree on the same story.”
The second issue is a topic that Jonah Goldberg deconstructs thoroughly in The Tyranny of Cliches — liberals love to believe that they have no ideology, unlike us folks in what Hillary once dubbed the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. How that mindset works for those in the MSM specifically, was a topic that Ace of Spades explored in depth in 2010, shortly before Newsweek was dumped by the Washington Post for a buck to the Harmans (who in turned hired Tina Brown to edit; Howard Kurtz would begin to work for her later that year):
Choosing to be a communist is Decision. And, similarly, choosing to be a conservative is a Decision. Choosing to be a strident, partisan liberal ideologue is also a decision (but an easier one, too, because it’s only a few degrees removed from soft-liberal feel-goodery).
But choosing to be a soft-liberal and mouth empty platitudes? Easy as pie, and not one in 20 people is going to bother challenging you on those platitudes.
Saying anything else just might get you into an argument. Now, some people like arguments (us lot, for example) but most do not. Most people are adverse to confrontation and react emotionally, not intellectually, to disagreement.
Plus, if you don’t really know much at all about politics, such arguments will almost certainly result in that fact being exposed, and then you’ll look uninformed and stupid — and who the hell wants that? No one, that’s who.
So, all else being equal, it makes perfect sense for the 15-20% of our population that barely knows anything at all to politics to stick to the safe harbor of the default script.
This is the MFM’s greatest achievement — that for this 15-20% of the population that has no serious, structure political beliefs at all, an adherence to the general basics of liberalism is the default setting. All ties go to the liberals, in other words, and that’s big thing, isn’t it?
And that’s why we’re so outraged at the MFM. This isn’t just about their smug arrogance or corrupt pretense of being the fair-and-objective Deciders. It’s a personal thing — our personal revulsion at a set of know-nothing inexpert, unprofessional clowns arrogating to themselves the power to decide what is and is not permitted in polite, enlightened discourse — but it’s not just personal.
This has enormous implications for the trajectory of our politics — if the MFM can establish that soft-liberalism is the cost-free, work-free, choice-free, information-free path of least resistance for such a big chunk of our population, the MFM basically gets to choose the nation’s path.
Which… they largely have, of course. And that is why I fluctuate between treating the Democratic Party and the MFM as our top opponents in politics. Yes, it’s the Democratic Party on the ballot every two years.
But, as Andrew Breitbart rages in his stump speech, it’s actually the MFM which props the Democratic Party up by delivering unto them 15-20% of the public they never had to convince or fight for. 15-20% of the vote is delivered to the liberal camp every election simply because the media has established that’s the way nice people who just want what’s good — and want the least hassle over politics — vote.
And I think a fair number of partisan liberals understand this (far more than would be willing to admit it) and that accounts for their rage at FoxNews and Rush Limbaugh and any other contrary voice. If the Democrats’ advantage among soft-liberal apathetics declined to 15-20% to 10% or 5% or (God Forbid!) no advantage at all, they could start seriously losing elections.
Partially as a result of Fox going in a different direction beginning in the mid-1990s, and partially as a result of Democrats in general moving far to the left of where they professed to stand during the Clinton years, the center of gravity has shifted in the MSM much further left than the days when it attempted to hide behind a bland centrism. There are even some in the MSM who will profess their industry’s bias, if you catch them at the right moment. (As Cronkite himself did, back in 2003, as the then-ombudspersons of the Times and the WaPo did in 2004 and 2008.) But just as with much of the left thinking it has no ideology, and that they were straight shooters during the Cronkite-era*, despite reveling in the fall of first LBJ, then RMN, this is one media myth, to borrow from the name of journalist/author Joseph Campbell’s blog, that will take some time to extinguish itself.
* Just watch Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 satire of the TV industry, or read Victor Lasky’s It Didn’t Start With Watergate, published around the same period, to get a sense of how fair and centrist they were back then…