I wrote the following in September 2012, and am sharing it in light of the “fake news” controversies of the moment:
I believe the news and most of television has become poisonous to our culture. Our parents grew up in the fading days when Cronkite was the embodiment of news, and when “straight reporting” was almost never laced with opinion. Functionally, not ever in the public consciousness. There was news, and then there were others on other shows who might comment on the news.
We don’t even pretend what we’re doing today is lacing the “news” with “perspective” — we know it’s all just spin.
Let me explain. I watched Mitt Romney’s convention speech last night. He delivered a fine speech, of the type that for much of it made me proud to be an American because he spoke to some of the best qualities of what we try to be as a people. I expect Obama will make me similarly proud for much of his own convention speech. They’re speeches. They’re trying to explain themselves to us in a way that makes sense. It makes sense that we should feel proud about our country and our electoral process when we hear them.
And within seconds of the speech ending, whatever network we’re seeing them on springs into action. What surprised you in this speech tonight? Where did he succeed in connecting with undecideds? Where did he fail? How much will this move the needle? And on, and on, and on. And on.
We might watch a quarter hour of either soaring or grounded rhetoric. We might be feeling like we’re right to think brightly about ourselves, and our future. And within maybe two minutes we’re being brought low. We’re dragged along through the cliquishness of contemporary news; the clucking-hen culture that wants to talk about what the talk will be about, and wants to think about what the thought will be about. It’s all become so meta as to become unreal.
I remember reading in one of Peggy Noonan’s books years ago (I think it was in What I Saw at the Revolution) where she spoke about a marked change she witnessed in America between the 1980 and 1984 elections. The questions reporters asked were the same: What do you think of the candidate? Will you vote for him? What don’t you like? etc. In 1980 many of the answers were straightforward: I like him; my family’s always been Democrat; I wish he was stronger on X policy. By 1984 the answers had become echoes. Americans were now answering by saying things like, “Well I saw CNN said X about him, and the New York Times said Y,” or “He’s five points behind in the polls so people don’t think he can win here.”
Americans went from citizens with opinions to third-rate news commentators, sharing what they had come to understand as the prevailing opinion of the moment over any particular opinion of their own. More “this is how I’ve heard things are playing out” than “this is what I think.”
And who did this to these people? Noonan doesn’t say, but I think that the news media created these conditions. It’s alright to feel good about things without having them so analyzed as to have the effect that we watch a speech we liked and that elevated us and yet end up leaving the room more cynical and sour than we entered it thanks to the “news” commentary that ran before, after, and sometimes during its delivery.
Everyone will have an opinion. The one thing that once set journalists apart is they were people who wouldn’t have opinions. I said in the beginning that I think news has become a poisonous force because I believe it’s not so often simply informing viewers as damaging our ability to think, because we now have to think about what we’re thinking about.
The cocktail parties are where journalists once had opinions, not the primetime slot. In elevating themselves they’ve abused the public trust. They’ve corroded their profession.
Americans will be asking themselves some form of “What are we all doing here?,” more than ever.