Good and Grumpy

Grumpy old media guys like Ted Koppel and Dan Rather are ubiquitous these days, but they serve as a useful foil to hip, clever, happening zeitgeist jockeys.

Earlier this week, Ted Koppel gave us the first glimpse of what he'll be doing with his new gig as a New York Times op-ed contributor. In case you missed it, the column opened with an excerpt from Koppel's unfinished novel about—a television anchorman. Koppel said his opus has been "gathering dust." Times readers who got through the tumid chunk he offered were reminded that dust has its purposes.

Koppel used the rest of the piece to argue that network news is going to pot. My friend Jack Shafer, in his Slate column, blasted Koppel's op-ed as "self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, late-to-the-party, and punishingly obvious." Right on every count, but when Shafer spanked The Times for making Koppel a contributor in the first place—"Based on what did The Times think Koppel could write a compelling newspaper column?"—I think he missed the larger point.

Grumpy old media guys are ubiquitous these days, and they serve several crucial purposes. First, a world inhabited entirely by hip, clever, happening zeitgeist jockeys would be a very dull place. In media culture, as in real-life families, the crabby, morose oldster plays a dual role: 1) repository of genuine worldly wisdom, and 2) foil for the fresh ideas and optimism of those coming up behind him. Newness isn't worth much unless it has some moldy oldness to bump up against.

If anyone in TV today deserves to be called wise, Koppel does. His Nightline years will endure on the cultural hard drive as one of the great achievements of the mass media age. Yet reading his plaint about the news business today—he writes nostalgically of the days when the Federal Communications Commission had a firmer regulatory grip on television—you can't help but think that we all ultimately become prisoners of our past. Yes, the networks are going downhill. But there are still plenty of TV journalists with smarts and great values. Witness Bob Woodruff.

Second, just because whatever greatness network TV once had (and it was always very limited) is now vanishing, that doesn't mean the world is adrift. Quite the opposite. The decline of top-down news is an exhilarating development. If there is a human craving for truthful reporting and analysis of the world we live in—and you have to be a curmudgeonly misanthrope not to believe there is—outlets will rise up to meet that need. They already are. Look at the ongoing success story that is National Public Radio and at the exploding world of blogs. Look at what's happening on Yahoo, in podcasting, and in many other corners. The decline of the nets is evolution, not devolution.

Koppel's self-regarding, from-the-mountaintop style implicitly demonstrates this. One of the core problems of the big 20th-century media was their lofty, we-know-what's-best view of themselves. Naturally, The New York Times, which suffers from the same malady, picked up Koppel as a columnist. For anyone with a sense of humor, reading him (or rather, skimming him) on that page is a delightful twofer.

The day before the Koppel column appeared, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a Dan Rather appearance in L.A. Like Koppel, Rather had an impressive run in the big chair, and he's worth listening to. Also like Koppel, he is now waxing dyspeptic on the perfectly awful things happening to his old profession. Today's journalists need spine transplants, he said, and he cited role model Edward R. Murrow, whose corpse grumpy old media men carry around with them like a Charlie McCarthy dummy: "Now, Eddie, tell the people what real journalism was like."

According to the L.A. Times, Rather also said that blogging "is not a crime," but the public should realize "there's a new opportunity here to manipulate public opinion." Well, yes. That is the main reason people start playing around with this crazy freedom-of-speech business. They see powerful people misusing their power, or just doing shoddy work, and they figure the public should know about it. That's exactly how Dan fell from his perch. No wonder he's grumpy!

The Times noted that the questions Rather took from the audience were "screened" beforehand. Now, there's a great detail. Don't change, venerable, sulky old media dudes. We love you just the way you are.