New Media Sucks; So Did Old Media

While there are doubtless flaws with the journalistic values and culture of the New Media, we too often contrast today with a Golden Age of Media that never existed.

The Atlantic‘s Jim Fallows argues that, while there are doubtless flaws with the journalistic values and culture of the New Media, we too often contrast today with a Golden Age of Media that never existed.

For instance: Ted Koppel, a direct descendant of the golden-age greats, illustrates the complexities of even journalism’s “best” periods. To Jimmy Carter and senior members of his administration, Koppel’s famous Nightline program on ABC was a dramatic example of the way media sensationalism could distort, or at least affect, public life. On November 4,1979, exactly one year before Carter would stand for reelection, Iranian radicals seized 66 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Within a few days, ABC had launched a nightly 11:30 p.m. special report on the crisis, which soon was called “America Held Hostage: Day 15.” Then it was “America Held Hostage: Day 100,” and the night before Americans went to the polls, “America Held Hostage: Day 365,” with Koppel anchoring the news each night.

There are many reasons Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan; a prime interest rate of 20 percent during the spring symbolized economic problems that might have been sufficient to do him in. But “America Held Hostage” surely played a part. It was an early illustration of the way in which a choice about news coverage—namely, to offer a daily countdown of America’s humiliation—converted a problem into an emergency. Koppel told me that years after the hostages were released, he met Jimmy Carter at a ceremony in Washington. “President Carter said there were two people who were better off because of the hostage situation,” Koppel told me. “The ayatollah. And me.” And all of this notwithstanding Koppel’s role as one of the most serious and sophisticated broadcast journalists of his day.

The point is not to debunk the greats but to say that the noble parts of golden-age journalism were not its only parts. The most famous play about American journalism, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’sThe Front Page, is set in a courthouse press room in the 1920s, when reporters swaggered rather than cowered. But its ethics are straight from what many think of as the Gawker playbook: reporters bribe sources, editors hype whatever lurid story will draw a crowd, no one gets too haughty about the “responsibility” of the press. Richard Hofstader’s seminal works about unreason and misinformation in American public affairs, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, appeared in the early 1960s and were hardly respectful of the journalism of that time.

“From the standpoint of policy explanation, as opposed to battlefield coverage, the press did a lousy job on the two biggest foreign-policy stories of my adult life—Vietnam and Iraq—and it’s doing a poor job now on Afghanistan,” I was told by William Whitworth, for 20 years the editor of this magazine. As a young New Yorker writer in 1970, Whitworth did a celebrated 20,000-word interview with Eugene Rostow, a Johnson-administration veteran and prominent supporter of the Vietnam War, consisting of repeated requests for him to explain why, exactly, it would matter if the United States “lost” Vietnam. I had asked Whitworth whether he thought that throughout his career the media had gotten better or worse in their ability to examine, as he had done in his Rostow article, the “why” of major policy decisions, beyond the operational “how.” He said it was hard to argue that newspapers and TV were overall doing a worse job than during the Korean and Vietnam wars. “What mixes the picture, obviously,” he said, “is the advent of the Internet. It provides us with an unprecedented amount of poor and even fake information, but it also give us access to a wider array of good news sources and to very useful public-policy discussions you wouldn’t find in newspapers or on television.”

“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic,” Jill Lepore said, referring to both press coverage and the public discussion it spawns. “It’s that so much more of American life is public. I think that goes a long way to explaining what seems to be a ‘decline.’ Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization.”

There’s much, much more to the piece and I commend it to you in full. But it’s amazing how cyclical American politics and media have been since colonial times. But we have an odd habit of looking at the past through the lenses of nostalgia, glossing away the worst parts.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brett says:

    I always like to remind people complaining about partisan news that in the 19th century, it really was partisan news, with the political parties having major newspapers that effectively served as their mouthpieces in many ways. Early 20th century press was even worse in much of its scandal-seeking.