We Americans have been questioning the role of journalism in our society since our founding. We’ve called it the fourth branch of government. Over the past five or six years, it appears that journalism has declined. We look at the Iraq war, torture, warrantless wiretaps and wonder what has become of mainstream journalism.
I want journalists to speak out when they see something that is wrong. I want them to report facts and then comment on those facts. I also want journalists to understand that everything cannot be a five alarm fire. Everything cannot demand my attention right now. If you are on television, you have an obligation to the American people. Your obligation is to prioritize what’s important and what isn’t. (I fully realize that we won’t always agree on the priorities.)
I don’t agree with Koppel’s assessment of Olbermann, Maddow and others. But, my opinion isn’t important. What is important is what these journalists are bringing to the table. Are they furthering division or are they furthering debate? Are they simply an echo chamber or are they drawing the red hot spotlight of the mainstream media onto problems in need of illumination? Veteran journalist Ted Koppel did not attempt to answer these questions.
Keith Olbermann has more:
When Walter Cronkite died sixteen months ago, he was rightly lionized for the quality of his work, and the impact he effected on television news. He was praised for his utter objectivity and impartiality, and implicitly – and in some cases explicitly – there was wailing that this objectivity had died with him.
Yet invariably the same few clips were shown with each obituary: There was the night Cronkite devoted fourteen minutes of the thirty-minute long CBS Evening News to a report on Watergate which devastated the Nixon Administration, one so strong that the Administration pressured CBS just to shorten the next night’s follow-up to eight minutes. There was the extraordinary broadcast on Vietnam from four-and-a-half years earlier in which he insisted that nothing better than stalemate was possible and that America should negotiate its way out, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” All that newscast did was convince the 36th President of the United States to not seek reelection. The deserved and heartfelt sadness at the loss of a great journalist and a great man had been turned into a metaphor for the loss of a style of utterly uninvolved, neutral “objective” reporting. Yet most of the highlights of the man’s career had been of those moments when he correctly and fearlessly threw off those shackles and said what was true, and not merely what was factual.
It has been the same with every invocation of Edward R. Murrow: Murrow would never have stood for the editorializing of today in his newscasts! The Murrow radio reports from London rooftops during the Blitz of 1940 are replayed – and forever should be – and their creator is offered as a paragon of “straight” reporting. Yet it is never mentioned, that as they happened, CBS was pressured to stop those searing explosions of truth, because our political leaders believed they would unfairly influence Americans to side with the British when the nation was still officially neutral and the Republican Party was still completely convinced that there was a deal to make with the Nazis. President Roosevelt did not invite Murrow to the White House to congratulate him on his London reports because they were “fair and balanced.”
Similarly, the journalism students of now seven different decades have studied the Murrow broadcasts about Senator Joseph McCarthy from 1954. These are properly lauded as some of the greatest moments not merely in the history of American Journalism; they are considered such in the history of America. The story is told that a cowering, profit-hungry press stood idly by – or even rode McCarthy’s paranoia for circulation and ratings – while the blacklist and the fear grew. And then Murrow slayed the dragon.
Always left out, sadly, is the fact that within hours of speaking truth based on facts, Murrow was attacked as a partisan. The Republicans, and the Conservative newspapers, and the Conservative broadcasters described – in what they would have insisted was neutral, objective, unbiased, factual reporting – that in smearing the patriotic McCarthy, Murrow was a Democrat, a Liberal, a Socialist, a Marxist, a Communist, a traitor. Always left out, sadly, is the fact that these attacks worked. Within 12 months, Murrow’s “See It Now” program had lost its sponsor and been reduced from once a week to once a month. Within 18 months it had been shifted from every Tuesday night at 10:30 to once in awhile on Sunday afternoons at 5 — becoming, as one CBS producer put it “See It Now And Then.”