The latest big news scandal should only reinforce the obvious and constant complaint coming from all the ingredients and constituencies that make up the U.S. political melting pot -- the post-World War II tradition of objective journalism is either fubar or officially dead.
If you're not hip to the military slang term, fubar, which became popular around same the time that George Dubya Bush was celebrating his short timer status in the National Guard by pretending to work for the political campaign of his daddy's friend, Alabama Senator Winton 'Red' Blount and getting fubar drunk every other night -- about the same time which these infamously fake memos cover, the Vietnam War era of tie-dye, Jimi Hendrix, and LSD, -- fubar means fucked-up beyond all recognition.
The only consumers of the American News Media Product that are surprised or disappointed by Dan Rather's Memo Gate are the 50+ year old baby boomers who grew up during the warm, fuzzy, overly-protected innocent years of American culture with the notion of objective journalism as a evolutionary reaction to the obvious government propaganda in the media during World War II.
Investigative journalists and news organizations were the government watchdog. Their job was to cut through the propaganda of government and beauracracy. It was journalism that exposed Watergate, illegal and corrupt acts of politicians in the U.S. government, and caused U.S. president Richard M. Nixon to resign. Watergate is the origin scandal, patient zero, after which all subsequent political scandals in the U.S. reported in the media have been cutely named something-gates.
Everyone else on the planet understands the obvious bias in the American News Media Product. Younger consumers, people living outside the U.S., and students of politics, media and culture of all ages are not overly surprised or outraged by memo-gate, or Rather-gate, if you prefer that name. While yellow journalism may only be a history question on a pop-quiz, it is the reality of american news media again. News media outlets around the planet carry some agenda or bias. They may be the mouth-piece of that particular government, or the mouth-piece of any political party within that government, or the mouth-piece for causes and groups not yet represented in the government. The American News Media is no different. Conservatives will tell you. Liberals will tell you. I'm telling you.
Most people that lived through those Cold War years, then the Vietnam era years, and then Watergate, would tell you that it was very disturbing and troubling. It marked an end of innocence. The U.S. goverment had won the big world war for liberty, peace and democracy. It was actively protecting the good people of the world from the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, the communist aggressors, and the assured destruction of mankind with nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles during the Cold War.
If the idea of objective journalism really was an evolutionary reaction to blatant government propaganda, the current psychology of the American Samizdat marks a slide backward into the slimy journalistic puddle of goo out of which it had once crawled. But, does it matter?
Journalism changed that comforting notion. A single photograph of a naked child running down a nameless road in Vietnam on fire from napalm made the average person think twice about the wisdom of the Vietnam War. Journalists exposing military lies at the highest level turned unquestioning patriotism into civil dissent. Watergate was just the final blow for goverment credibilty but it was a benchmark of sorts. While it was troubling for the people living and dying during those troubling times, most people appreciate the fact that someone investigated, someone reported, someone told them the ugly truth.
Try as I may, I am unable to conjure up a single shred of nostalgia for the once-fabled network evening news programs. Walter Cronkite is a name to me, not a symbol of reassurance or stability. Edward R. Murrow is a historical figure. As for the hallowed idea of "the six o'clock news," it means nothing: In my adult life, I've never had time to watch the daily news at 6 or 6:30, at least not with any regularity. When I watch television at all, I switch without any particular loyalty from CNN to Fox to C-SPAN, depending on who is doing the talking, and I feel reasonably cynical about all of them.
Anne Applebaum's column is worth the effort to jump through the online registration hoops at the Washington Post in order to read, no matter if your favorite media watchdog or commentator hangs out with Noam Chomsky or William F. Buckley. [Update: Watch RealVideo C-SPAN interview with Anne Applebaum discussing this topic.] But, since she makes some astute observations which just happen to agree with my own (snicker), I'll quote her conclusions here for you:
What became clear, as the story wound down to the inevitable apology on Monday night, was that Rather and his fellow network newsmen are stuck in a Vietnam/Watergate-era time warp. Most of us regard network anchors as faintly pompous talking heads, people who read other people's prose off teleprompters. But the anchors, rather extraordinarily, still regard themselves as the conscience of the nation. They aren't mere "journalists" who have to use authentic documents to prove their allegations but rather people whose fame and large paychecks and unchallenged power entitle them to some kind of automatic credibility, even if their documents are fake.
I'm sure we'll see this episode as the final collapse of network television's dominance over the news, and the final triumph of something else, something that is in some ways better, in some ways worse. On the one hand, the media are reverting to a more combative, pre-television norm, a time when partisanship was normal and you picked up your newspaper in the morning with a clear idea of the writers' opinions -- which did at least allow you to compensate for them. On the other hand, in this more competitive, post-television age, partisans expend a great deal of energy fact-checking others, and have more outlets on the Internet, on the radio, in the press and on TV for their findings. You don't like Rather? Click on www.ratherbiased.com. You don't like Fox? Read Al Franken.
Much has been made in the past few years of the networks' "liberal bias." More dangerous, it seems to me, was the fact that the networks held a virtual monopoly over the most powerful form of communication. By its nature, television news has had far greater influence on politics, particularly national politics, than any newspaper or magazine could dream of. For that reason alone, more viewers watching a wider range of channels has to be better for the political health of the country.
I expect the death throes of network news will be long and drawn out, and there will be tedious weeping and wailing while it happens. But once it's gone, think of all that might go with it: the stories that are simultaneously pompous and superficial, the atmosphere that is at once grave and silly, the too-famous faces, and the too-brief stories. With any luck, the really good television journalists will survive and migrate elsewhere -- and the rest of us can channel surf until we find them.
And surf I do. And surf you must, if you want to catch a few fish of truth swimming around in the slimy pond of yellow journalistic goo. The only thing I truly regret is the automatic disdain and dismissal of journalism by one side of the political sprectrum when it happens to come from their political opposite.
Tens of thousands of boos and jeers toward Michael Moore during the Republican National Convention may have felt exhilirating to those GOP faithful and made for a few repeatable minutes of tape for Fox News, but to me it was indicative of a sad uninformed polarization of American politics when even John McCain admitted he has not even seen the Fahrenheit 911 documentary film. No one was happy to read Woodward and Bernstein's investigative journalism about Watergate at the time when they reported and published it, either. If a movie of the week is made about this time in American politics some years down the road, maybe John Goodman can put on a hundred pounds and portray Michael Moore. I loved John Goodman doing Babe Ruth.
Nic September 25, 2004 07:57 AM PDT John,
"The only consumers of the American News Media Product that are surprised or disappointed by Dan Rather's Memo Gate are the 50+ year old baby boomers who grew up during the warm, fuzzy, overly-protected innocent years of American culture with the notion of objective journalism as a evolutionary reaction to the obvious government propaganda in the media during World War II."
I hate to say this but "we" 50+ (I am looking at 58) who grew up during that period are also those who populated most of the communes and head shops in America. We are also the victims of the that government hoax called Viet Nam and I am proud to say that I was a Viet Nam Vet Against the War, but not proud to say I was a Viet Nam Vet.
Investigative journalism i.e. Woodward and Burnstein was was responsible for outing what was obvious to many for a long time; Nixon was a crook dispite his statement to the contrary. Unfortunately journalist didn't out the war for the right reason (it was wrong, as simple as that), they outed it because it "Bled" (it got attention because it was horrific and "if it bleeds, it leads" and that is what sells newspapers, gets rating and network shares)
Rather's memo's to the best of my knowledge have not been proven fake, rather they have not been verified properly.
By the way growing up in the 50's was not "warm, fuzzy, overly-protected innocent". Despite the images of Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best and every other genre TV show. I developed a well twisted mind as did many of my fellow boomer's. Dubya's problem was not enough coke, acid and Hendrix while playing with himself in the Air Guard.