Scary or not, is this in fact worse than journalism as we have previously known it? It is tempting to conclude that the cacophony we hear now must represent a descent from previous standards. “I am sad at what feels like a decline in our public culture,” I was told by Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and the author of the recent The Whites of Their Eyes, which compares today’s Tea Party activists with the original Revolutionary War activists. “It feels like a personally abusive and textually violent time.” But she went on to say that it is hard to demonstrate that today’s media and resulting public discussion are, in their totality, worse than before.
For instance: Ted Koppel, a direct descendant of the golden-age greats, illustrates the complexities of even journalism’s “best” periods. To Jimmy Carter and senior members of his administration, Koppel’s famous Nightline program on ABC was a dramatic example of the way media sensationalism could distort, or at least affect, public life. On November 4,1979, exactly one year before Carter would stand for reelection, Iranian radicals seized 66 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Within a few days, ABC had launched a nightly 11:30 p.m. special report on the crisis, which soon was called “America Held Hostage: Day 15.” Then it was “America Held Hostage: Day 100,” and the night before Americans went to the polls, “America Held Hostage: Day 365,” with Koppel anchoring the news each night.
There are many reasons Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan; a prime interest rate of 20 percent during the spring symbolized economic problems that might have been sufficient to do him in. But “America Held Hostage” surely played a part. It was an early illustration of the way in which a choice about news coverage—namely, to offer a daily countdown of America’s humiliation—converted a problem into an emergency. Koppel told me that years after the hostages were released, he met Jimmy Carter at a ceremony in Washington. “President Carter said there were two people who were better off because of the hostage situation,” Koppel told me. “The ayatollah. And me.” And all of this notwithstanding Koppel’s role as one of the most serious and sophisticated broadcast journalists of his day.
The point is not to debunk the greats but to say that the noble parts of golden-age journalism were not its only parts. The most famous play about American journalism, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, is set in a courthouse press room in the 1920s, when reporters swaggered rather than cowered. But its ethics are straight from what many think of as the Gawker playbook: reporters bribe sources, editors hype whatever lurid story will draw a crowd, no one gets too haughty about the “responsibility” of the press. Richard Hofstader’s seminal works about unreason and misinformation in American public affairs, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, appeared in the early 1960s and were hardly respectful of the journalism of that time.
“From the standpoint of policy explanation, as opposed to battlefield coverage, the press did a lousy job on the two biggest foreign-policy stories of my adult life—Vietnam and Iraq—and it’s doing a poor job now on Afghanistan,” I was told by William Whitworth, for 20 years the editor of this magazine. As a young New Yorker writer in 1970, Whitworth did a celebrated 20,000-word interview with Eugene Rostow, a Johnson-administration veteran and prominent supporter of the Vietnam War, consisting of repeated requests for him to explain why, exactly, it would matter if the United States “lost” Vietnam. I had asked Whitworth whether he thought that throughout his career the media had gotten better or worse in their ability to examine, as he had done in his Rostow article, the “why” of major policy decisions, beyond the operational “how.” He said it was hard to argue that newspapers and TV were overall doing a worse job than during the Korean and Vietnam wars. “What mixes the picture, obviously,” he said, “is the advent of the Internet. It provides us with an unprecedented amount of poor and even fake information, but it also give us access to a wider array of good news sources and to very useful public-policy discussions you wouldn’t find in newspapers or on television.”
“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic,” Jill Lepore said, referring to both press coverage and the public discussion it spawns. “It’s that so much more of American life is public. I think that goes a long way to explaining what seems to be a ‘decline.’ Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization.”
She added that since the 1940s, political scientists had tried to measure how well American citizens understood the basic facts and concepts of the nation and world they live in. “It actually is a constant,” she said. “There is a somewhat intractable low level of basic political knowledge.” When I asked Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at UC San Diego, whether changes in the media had made public discussion less rational than before, he sent back a long list of irrationalities of yesteryear. One I remembered from my youth: the taken-for-granted certainty among some far-right and far-left groups in the 1960s (including in my very conservative hometown) that Lyndon Johnson had ordered the killing of John Kennedy. One I had forgotten: Representative John Anderson of Illinois, who received nearly 6 million votes as an Independent presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, three times introduced legislation to amend the Constitution so as to recognize the “law and authority” of Jesus Christ over the United States.
While it’s interesting and even useful to know whether today’s journalism marks a descent from past standards, what matters more is how it suits today’s needs. This depends on how media of the Gawker age, which deliver what the customers want rather than what they “should” have, handle the task of explaining the world. Of course, there will for a long time be a range of publications, all of them subject to the new market pressures but each having its own conception of its culture and the “brand,” the reputation and audience it can deliver to advertisers. But existing American media operations must become slightly if steadily more like the Gawkers of the business—we’re doing it right here, at the magazine Ralph Waldo Emerson and company founded before the Civil War—and new operations will grow up knowing no other environment. Is this a change to fight?