The End of Network News
Over the weekend, Tom Rosenstiel proclaimed “The End of ‘Network News’” in the Washington Post.
Regardless of who wins the election, the campaign of 2004 has already made history. For the first time, a cable news channel — Fox — attracted more viewers than a broadcast network when they were competing head to head, covering the Republican National Convention. Was this a watershed for a new partisan journalism in America? I think the real meaning is something else. What happened this summer, and particularly last week, is likely to be recalled as the end of the era of network news. At the very least, mark this as the moment when the networks abdicated their authority with the American public.
Should we care? Consider: The rise of network television news was arguably the most important development in American politics in the latter half of the 20th century. The arrival of news divisions in the 1950s and ’60s meant that for the first time citizens could regularly see events for themselves. Within a remarkably short time, nearly everything about the way we elected our leaders changed. Presidential primaries became the means of nomination. Parties were weakened. Conventions became communications rather than decision-making events. The smoke-filled room all but disappeared. We began to respond to different qualities in our leaders. Personal characteristics began to transcend resume. Policy, as James Carville notes, became a character issue. Party platforms were just pieces of paper. With the old ways of vetting candidates gone, the public started demanding that the press provide more personal information about its political leaders — not excluding their sex lives. Some say that the kind of people we elected changed.
The rise of the networks also helped raise the media to a position of unprecedented prestige. By the late 1960s, an anchorman, Walter Cronkite, was the most trusted man in America. Watching Cronkite, just back from Vietnam in 1968, declare the war unwinnable, President Johnson turned to an aide and said that if “we have lost Walter, we have lost the country.” A few weeks later, a majority of Americans polled were in opposition to the war. Johnson declined to run for reelection. Networks were consequential — and serious in purpose. While newspaper people are loath to admit it, TV journalism at its best could tell stories more powerfully than print. Now, with their decision to forgo any meaningful coverage of the conventions, the networks have signified — despite whatever rhetoric they offer — that the prestige and influence of their news divisions no longer matter much to them.
Rosenstiel notes, too, that the average age of network news viewers is now 60 and believes that cable news has a different ethos than the networks, focusing more on banter about the news than actual news coverage. I gather that he believes the latter a bad thing. Frankly, by the time nightly news telecasts roll around, analysis is precisely what I want. Indeed, if I’m in a pinch for time I will often fast forward through the first part of Fox Special Report and skip right to the roundtable at the end. With the Internet providing more news content than I can possibly read, I lack the patience to have Tom Brokaw read me the parts he thinks worthwhile.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, “No Disputing It: Blogs Are Major Players.”
These days, CBS News anchor Dan Rather and his colleagues at the network’s magazine program “60 Minutes II” are enduring an unusual wave of second-guessing by some of the public and fellow journalists. For that, they can thank “Buckhead.” It was a late-night blog posting by this mystery Netizen that first questioned the validity of documents Rather cited Wednesday as proof that George W. Bush did not fulfill his National Guard duty more than 30 years ago.
Buckhead refuses to further identify himself, other than dropping hints that he is a male who lives on the East Coast Ã¢€” preferring to proclaim that the scramble to verify the contentions in his posting marks an extraordinary achievement for a medium that has operated more as an underground world of ideological venting than a source of legitimate news. But Buckhead is vehement about one thing: He acted alone when he posted, to the conservative website FreeRepublic.com, what was widely believed to be the first allegation that the CBS report relied on documents that could have been forged. “Absolutely, positively, on my own, sitting at my computer in my bedroom just before midnight Ã¢€” but not in my pajamas,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Times. “But once I posted the comment to Free Republic I was no longer working alone, and that is the real point of the story about the story about the story.”
That story began Wednesday, 19 minutes after the “60 Minutes II” broadcast began, when another FreeRepublic poster, TankerKC, noted that the documents were “not in the style that we used when I came into the USAFÃ¢€¦. Can we get a copy of those memos?” Less than four hours later, Buckhead pointed to “proportionally spaced fonts” in the memos, which CBS said had been written in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984. Buckhead concluded that the documents had been drafted on a modern-day word processor rather than a typewriter. “I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old,” Buckhead wrote. “This should be pursued aggressively.”
And it was Ã¢€” with startling speed.
While we can be wistful that there is no equivalent to Walter Chronkite, a unifying figure who Americans from all walks of life trusted for their news, this event shows that the alternatives are mostly better at getting information out. No matter how well intentioned, concentration and centralization have some rather huge downsides.
Update (1028): John Fund is on this story, too:
A watershed media moment occurred Friday on Fox News Channel, when Jonathan Klein, a former executive vice president of CBS News who oversaw “60 Minutes,” debated Stephen Hayes, a writer for The Weekly Standard, on the documents CBS used to raise questions about George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service. Mr. Klein dismissed the bloggers who are raising questions about the authenticity of the memos: “You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at ’60 Minutes’] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.” He will regret that snide disparagement of the bloggers, many of whom are skilled lawyers or have backgrounds in military intelligence or typeface design. A growing number of design and document experts say they are certain or almost certain the memos on which CBS relied are forgeries.
A defensive Dan Rather went on the air Friday to complain of what he called a “counterattack” from “partisan political operatives.” In reality, traditional journalism now has a new set of watchdogs in the “blogosphere.” In the words of blogger Mickey Kaus, they can trade information and publicize it “fast enough to have real-world consequences.” Sure, blogs can be transmission belts for errors, vicious gossip and last-minute disinformation efforts. But they can also correct themselves almost instantaneously–in sharp contrast with CBS’s stonewalling.
Dean Esmay emphasizes the downside of this, noting the speculation going on at various blogs about the identity of the forger:
Not in public, guys. Not like this. You may be sure you’re on to something but you are potentially doing something incredibly irresponsible. This isn’t an actor, or a politician, it’s a private individual, and until you’ve got a lot more to go on, you could be screwing up an innocent man’s life.
If webloggers want to be serious journalists, they have to take the responsibilities and not just the accolades. What are you guys going to do if he’s vindicated? Worse, what will you do if some cretins start threatening this guy? My own family has received death threats from cretins who hated something I or my wife wrote. Don’t think the same couldn’t happen to this man you’re speculating about based on some clever deductions that may nevertheless be wrong.
You could be right but you’ve got no more than deductions and interesting plausibilities. Please be careful!
Of course, in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and extemporaneous reportage on cable–and live “breaking news” on the networks–rumors, errors, and such are just as likely to happen on television as on significant blogs. Even before the heyday of CNN, one only has to go back to the frenetic coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan to recall the sloppiness and “get it first” mentality of the network news, delightfully parodied with the “Who Shot Buckwheat?” sketch on Saturday Night Live.