Media circus

In today's 24/7 blizzard of news, facts are elusive and objective analysis is hard to find.

October 03, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

After the Tet offensive of 1968 shattered the rosy view that many Americans had of the prospects for a U.S. victory in Vietnam, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite went to that troubled land.

On Feb. 27, just after returning, Cronkite ended his newscast with an unusual analytical soliloquy that he described as "speculative, personal and subjective." He concluded that the then-controversial proposal of negotiating with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese was the only way out of a war that was "mired in a stalemate."

It has been widely reported that when Cronkite finished, President Lyndon Johnson turned to an aide and said, "We've just lost middle America."

That was the stature that the news anchors - especially the avuncular Cronkite - had in America a generation ago. They were voices of authority. When they spoke, people listened.

That is no longer the case. What was once considered the media establishment has been engulfed by a perfect storm of spinmeisters and bloggers and talk shows and polemical pundits - with their best sellers and box-office-hit documentaries - all whirling in a technological hurricane that has led to a 24-hour news cycle and an imperative to make money by turning information into entertainment.

In this new media circus, anything - even the most basic fact - is subject to constant bombardment aimed at the credibility of messages and messengers. The multimedia heckling makes it difficult to have a thoughtful national conversation on the most important issues facing the country.

For many young Americans this phenomenon is destroying the credibility of the media.

"I found that in interviewing scores of people under the age of 40 across the country, a lot just object to the whole idea of the authority of news and feel that it is basically worthless," says David T.Z. Mindich of St. Michael's College in Vermont. "What we are seeing now is a whole generation of people who reject the notion of the importance of a central authoritative voice."

Facing such turbulent waters, the reaction of the once-dominant media - which in previous generations might have tried to lead the way through the storm - has often been to furl the sails, while shooting a few holes in the bottom of the boat.

It is not just the TV networks that are taking on water; the nation's most respected newspapers and magazines are also being tossed about in these waves. Books as well. The best-seller lists are full, not of cogent political analyses, but of polemical diatribes, designed not to persuade and enlighten, but to bring pleasure to those who already agree with the author.

Recent missteps of more traditional news sources have provided plenty of reasons for readers to question their authority, from the made-up stories of Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today to the apparently faked documents on President Bush's National Guard service that Dan Rather - Cronkite's successor at CBS - defended so ardently.

In some way, those blunders can be seen as consequences of the changing media landscape, not causes. They came as the pressure was heightened to race after more spectacular, groundbreaking stories to keep up with a relentless news cycle.

"The 24/7 news operations, then the cable talk shows, those were the first volleys in this phenomenon," says Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Merrill School of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "Then you get the Web, and the stove is never off."

Kunkel says that this means that stories that would have heated and cooled during several days of news cycles now never cool, that instead they are reported and discussed and spun and re-reported and talked about and analyzed so many times from so many points of view that they can become detached from the reality that was once at their core.

The newspapers that used to set the agenda that television and radio followed now find themselves scrambling to match the images that bombard their readers all day and night.

"The idea of a trusted source of information that the public turns to is a dying way of thinking about journalism in the United States today," says Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Journalism and journalists have become so blurred with advocacy and entertainment that the public does not really have good ways of distinguishing among them, so they all get painted with the same broad brush," Carpini says.

It is all now a big blur - Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Paula Zahn, Brit Hume, Ted Koppel, George Stephanopolus, Maureen Dowd, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Jon Stewart, Ann Coulter - so much so that it is too much trouble to try to keep straight who is trying to keep some standards of objectivity and who is trying to persuade. A pox on all their houses is the reaction of many, particularly the young who have no memory of an authoritative media.

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