The death of Walter Cronkite is an appropriate time to reflect on what’s happened to journalism in America.
Walter and I came to CBS around the same time, in the early 1950s. Sig Mickelson, head of the CBS News and Public Affairs division, at the time, brought Walter in to anchor the first television coverage of a presidential election convention in 1952 and incidentally coined the term “anchorman”.
Irving Gitlin, who ran the Public Affairs section, under Mickelson, brought me in to produce documentaries. In most cases, network correspondents came out of print journalism, television news producers out of film documentaries. Fred Friendly, who started the controversial program “See It Now” in 1951, came out of radio and always thought of television as radio with pictures, and admitted it.
Cronkite embodied the spirit of television journalism. In the 1960s and 70s, there was still some leeway for experimentation. I produced a number of news documentaries with Walter as host and narrator during that period.
In those days, the networks were still mostly independently owned—they had not yet been conglomerated.
William S. Paley, a cigar-maker in Philadelphia created the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) from a small radio network he bought in order to advertise his cigars.
By 1981, when Walter Cronkite handed over the CBS anchor desk to Dan Rather, the process of mergers and acquisitions was well under way.
Television networks were created in order to provide programming to affiliate local stations. The cost of producing the entertainment or news programs was financed through advertising; so commercial operations got into the game from the very beginning. Profits were shared between the network and their affiliated stations.
In the beginning, each network was limited to owning and operating only five local stations, (called the o&os), usually in the major markets, but they serviced many affiliates.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent US government agency, established by the Communications Act of 1934, was charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The FCC makes and is supposed to enforce the rules.
Rule #1—the Fairness Doctrine. In news and public affairs programming, stations must present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that is “honest, equitable and balanced” in the Commission’s view or they could be subject to losing their broadcast license.
I haven’t heard of a case where a station lost its license for this reason, but I guess there must be one. However, in 1987, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Oh, well, I guess it didn’t matter.
With the coming of color and the cable news networks, television became even more marinated in commercialism than it was when there were only three commercial networks.
As early as 1961, Newton Minow, then-head of the FCC made his famous “vaste wasteland” speech before the National Association of Broadcasters convention. Minow gave the broadcasters unshirted hell for not doing more to serve the public interest.
But that message went in one ear and out the other.
As time went on, the FCC kept loosening the reins, allowing the networks more and more latitude, not only in accumulating more and more o&os, but in deregulating mergers and acquisitions as well.
Today, the mainstream media is in a sorry state. Six corporate media giants with a stranglehold on information, control most of what we see, hear, and read. The five largest are AOL Time-Warner; the Walt Disney Company that now owns the ABC Television Network; Bertelsmann, a German firm with more than $15 billion in media assets; Sumner Redstone’s Viacom that owns CBS; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that controls and runs Fox News on TV and the New York Post on paper and all the news they fix to print.
In addition, they all have interests in major movie studios, other TV channels and networks, cable companies, most of the music companies, book publishing, retail stores, amusement parks, video games, and merchandising and on and on.
Such a concentration of media power in so few hands violates every known theory of a free market place of ideas that is the essence of democracy.
“While television is supposed to be free,” said Walter Lippmann, prominent journalist, in 1959, “it has, in fact, become the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandising.”
Despite his distain for commercial television, Lippmann also exhibited his distain for the intelligence of the American public. He didn’t think they were smart enough to understand complex political issues. The public needed journalists to filter the news for them; elites to interpret what policy-makers and politicians were doing, something called “manufacturing consent” as defined by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book by that name, subtitled “The Political Economy of the Mass Media”.
In their view, the media serves and propagandizes for “powerful societal interests” that controls and finances them. These interests have important agendas that they want to advance and they have the means with which to do it. It is not accomplished by crude intervention but by the “selection of right-thinking personnel, by editors and working journalists who internalize the priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution’s policy.”
Reporters working in the field call it “Do-It-Yourself Censorship”. You have to know just how far you can push the envelope or you won’t be working in the field very long.
The big change in television came when news became a profit center. With the collapse of the Fairness Doctrine and the laxity of the FCC, the News Departments at the Networks no longer felt they had to perform a public service. “Earn your own way, Buddy. Get a sponsor. Show a profit.” News shows started running commercials.
This was the new media world Walter Cronkite saw coming. He didn’t like it, either.
Good night and good luck, as Ed Murrow would say.
And that’s the way it is.