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 — 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, 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 — 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 USAF…. 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 — 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.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I’m somewhat taken aback by your last ‘graph… which seemingly was tossed of before really thinking the implications through.

    Hell, man, I’m THANKFUL that no such ‘unifier’ exists… Because without the side checking, we’d never know what kind of unity we were dedicating ourselves to.

    Many times in the past I have suggested that the example of left wing bias that is Dan Rather is not limited to him but is endemic to the breed of cockroach that infests West 57th. If Rather is biased, and the org behind him, (And I think the idea that both are so is unquestionable)… what indication do we have that Cronkite was not, when he ran the show.. particularly given Cronkite’s more recent history?

    Can you *imagine* what kind of chance the truth would have, had Dan Rather been the smooth talker that Cronkite was? Can you, for example, see the kind of questions we now see being raised about Rather’s bias, and his truthfulness in general, and these forged Bush/Guard documents in particular, 30 years ago, when Cronkite ran the show? I know I can’t.

    Granted that most of the current problems rather has involves fact checking by the Internet. But such fact checking would be harder to get started, I think, if Rather had the Cronkite Pipe and Slippers aura.

    Then again, perhaps the cross checking done by the net of today, would have prevented that aura from taking on the stature that it did. Which to my mind raises some degree of question about the history of the 60’s. Think; Conkite, since his retirement, has exposed himself as a far leftist, which more or less confirmed our mostly unspoken (at that time) fear about the MSM.

    One wonders, then, if the man didn’t succeed is inflicting more damage on us than he might have, when he was on the air, had he been a less capable communicator. Since the victors write the history books, (and in the context of the US, the Intelligencia is unabashedly leftist, they also are the ones who *teach* history) we may never really know.

    In any event, it seems to me trust of the MSM in the future will be earned at a much higher price. And I don’t see any one individual able to claim that particular crown.

    Given what we’ve had with such royalty in the past, I can’t say I’m displeased at all.

  2. Attila Girl says:

    Power corrupts. So in terms of getting facts, we’re better off. But I think we all wonder whether society is going to become more fragmented as a result of this trend.

    And, like Bithead, I’ve been curious about just how high a price we’ve paid over the last several decades for that seeming unity.

  3. James Joyner says:

    BH: Umm, that’s what I said.

    The downside of multiple voices is that we don’t have that shared national experience. As big as InstaPundit is, the vast majority of the public has never heard of it, let alone read it.

    The same is true for the fact that there is no longer the equivalent of a M*A*S*H, which almost everyone watched. It’s better in most ways that people can watch shows tailored for them instead but it comes at a modest price.

    Fragmentation isn’t 100% good but is preferable to limited choice.

  4. Bithead says:

    Just something about ‘wstful’ set me off on a line of thought I’d already been working on for a couple days.

    I guess a question that could be explored at this point is if, in fact, lacking such a pied piper, we do in the long term actually become more fragmented.

  5. Dean Esmay says:

    I think it’s safe to say that nothing is ever without its down side.

    The question is how you respond to it, and how good you are at identifying it as soon as you see it.

    Marriage is wonderful, but it requires constant compromises and losses of certain types of freedom.

    Doubly so for kids, unless you suck as a parent.

    Cars have made us a lot more free. But cars can kill us. So can electricity.

    Maybe it’s a restatement of the old adage: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Nothing is ever without its costs.

  6. The KGB says:

    I think the real story is being missed in all of this…. What did the White House do when CBS faxed them these new, never before seen documents……without checking them out on their own, they released them to the media. I think that goes to show that GWB is not trying to cover anything up.
    He released these documents as soon as he got them!

  7. BigFire says:

    Re: KGB

    When your enemies are doing their best to commit suicide, best leave them alone and allow them to finish the job. I’m fairly positive that White House knew it was fake the moment they look at it. Why should they stop the world from seeing what it really is?

  8. Attila Girl says:

    I suspect that the docs were released from the White House by an administrative person whose orders were, “if it pertains to TANG, release it.” I doubt they were ever scrutinized by anyone there at all. As I understand it, most of the people in that building have real jobs. They aren’t as obsessed with events 30 years ago as the Democratic Party presumes swing voters are.

    That’s the beautiiful thing about all of this: no one cares. Rather and CBS just jettisoned their credibility for nothing.