I hope the lovely Sally Field will forgive the bastardization of her 1985 Oscar speech for Norma Rae, but it seemed fitting for a piece on what the public thinks of us folks in the fifth estate. In short, well, see the title above.
There have been endless, and endlessly boring accounts of the state of the press in what the geniuses of Firesign Theater called, these days of modern times. Most cable networks have their own self-righteous media analysis programs which basically serve to excuse their own sins and like some journalistic evangelist, gladly hurl the first stone at those blasphemers across town.
As someone who has been at it with greater or lesser success for 52 years and counting, I wanted to tell you what it’s like on the inside, and how we in the press feel about it. No, not in some Bernard Goldberg way, wherein he desperately sought to escape his increasing irrelevance at CBS and cast his lot with Fox pointing back at his old employer for their sins of liberalism. Similarly, we see former Republican pundits and office holders now proclaiming on MSNBC that the scales have fallen from their eyes and they have seen the light.
No, I'm what the Houston Post once called a "raving, heterosexual, moderate." I have no idea what the writer was trying to say, but hey, you're happy to be mentioned at all. OK, to be fair, I lean left, which will surprise a grand total of no one among my friends. But I long ago gave up wearing blinders. I have worked in exactly two political campaigns in my life, one Democratic and one Republican. I have voted both ways, and find idiots and grifters on both sides. Like Diogenes, I have run across the occasional statesman, but they are as rare as Rhodes Scholars in the NBA Hall of Fame. I only know of one of the latter.
But as my first News Director told me in 1970 at KTRH in Houston, and as every reporter knows by heart, "If your Momma says she loves you, get a second source." And to be honest, in the overall scheme of things, the traditional straight down the middle, Cronkite/Huntley/Brinkley school of absolute balance, is a fairly recent phenomenon.
In the 19th century and early part of the next one, newpapers and later on, broadcast outlets often reflected the point of view of the owners. William Randolph Hearst, or Charles Foster Kane to his friends, is of course, the most glaring example. And his mentor in the world of press bias was the man we now name prizes for journalistic excellence for, Joseph Pulitzer. In fact they practically fought over who could get the most mileage out of a trumped up war with Spain. Hearst famously said to Frederick Remington whom he hired to illustrate the war that hadn't happened yet, "You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war."
That is the heritage of American journalism from scurrilous insinuations about everyone from Jefferson to Lincoln to the decidedly unattractive Grover Cleveland, to the bias we see today. It's just a return to the past. That brief island of even-handidness was discovered by the great white whale for us broadcast guys, Edward R. Murrow, and began to sink when Ted Turner had to fill 24 hours a day with...something. That something was opinion.
And it has gotten about as subtle as a mineshaft cave-in. Anyone remember when CNN was the cable version of the gold standard for news? When Rupert Murdoch saw an opening for right leaning blather, he tucked that ball called Fox under his arm and ran for daylight. Likewise, the original MSNBC was a fledgling CNN-wannabe but then heard the siren call of anti-Foxdom and remade itself into what was, for awhile, the Keith Olbermann network. Now Keith and Bill O'Reilly, the former host of Inside Edition turned political intellectual, can console each other with fat severance deals and unwatchable podcasts.
That leaves all of us at the local level sprinkled with the fairy dust, or dandruff if you prefer, from the national networks. I first saw it in the 1980's, when I left an unhappy situation at a Houston TV station and found I had a knack for, and was offered a job in, talk radio. This was pre-Limbaugh talk, when I got to talk to authors, actors, politicians and attempt some sort of radio version of 60-minutes interviews. Libs, rightys, dems, repubs, it didn't matter and all were treated the same, and got the same grilling. I liked to think no one in the audience knew my true feelings about guns or abortion. That's how I was reared by my journalistic parents in the business and by gosh, that was how it should be.
It went well for a few years, and Dan Patrick, yeah that one, called and offered me silly money to work for him and his fledgling radio station. But right before that happened, and I found out more about the syndicated national show he carried hosted by a guy with a verb for a first name, and before I left the warm womb that was KPRC, owned by the Hobby family, I got a taste of how the world was changing. My image of my program as a beacon of sanity in an increasingly strange American political scene was challenged by a note that someone actually went to the trouble of writing on paper, sticking in an envelope and spending 25 cents to mail to me. You see it below.
OK, it isn't Hemingway, but I got the point. Playing it straight didn't play that way for some. So, talk radio became a one note samba, and there was no more room for fun, humor or author interviews, unless they were stridently political. And, years later, Dan said that plainly, to be honest. OK, don't ask about the business part of the relationship, unless you are paying for the scotch.
But, for me the problem intensified in later years when I worked for a TV station where the General Manager actually walked in and told the newsroom, in front of God and everyone, that we were going to slant the news. In this case it was to the right, given our audience demographics, but I can imagine a GM a blue market doing the same. I didn't play along, and the News Director, to his credit, never made me. But the echo chamber this creates allows many to simply retreat to their respective philosophical corners until the bell rings for the next round.
I was News Director later for Sinclair Broadcasting. Yeah, those guys. The fellow who recruited me was an old friend from the Houston days and his first statement when he called me was, "OK, I know what you've heard." Well, what I'd heard was pretty much borne out. The organization had a goal and apart from our freedom to do local stories as we pretty much saw fit, the national stuff sent down had a decided point of view. And they have 294 stations in 89 cities spouting this stuff.
So, it has filtered down to the local level and permeates much of what you read and see. There are of course exceptions, and the reporters I managed and worked with are as good and honest as many from the glory days. But from the national networks on down, the damage has been done. And the effect on all of us is corrosive. Corrosive, but profitable. In a time where media outlets are no longer a license to print money, we have found that anger sells.
I live in a little town in East Texas now, and we went with my wife's parents to a small, family cafe for lunch after church awhile back. One gentleman apparently decided he was of course among friends, and began pontificating loudly his opinion on what he saw as the misdeeds of our governing class. Not sure where you grew up, but that wouldn't have happened when I was a kid. It is par for the course now, depending on where you live. No one, red or blue, can imagine that sensible people don't agree with them, and let you know that with the volume pegged at 10. And frankly, I can't remember when politics, pure politics, was such a constant topic everywhere. Unless the Astros make the playoffs again, or the Texans are transformed by the football fairy into a competitive team, it will dominate every conversation. Families, friendships and relationships of all sorts will fall prey to the nastiness granted by the anonymity of social media.
And through it all, we wretched scribblers remain the villains. It has now reached a fever pitch and young reporters trying to do a stand up report in the field are called things a Chief Petty Officer would chastise you for. If a story disrupts your worldview, it is obviously wrong, and the reporters hate America, or something like that. That attitude has begat anti-science, anti-vaxx, anti-climate change, or conversely, the demonization of a large slice of the country that enjoys hunting, church, and a different world view. Those points of view used to co-exist because we frankly, rarely talked about them. Now, that guy in the cafe can't seem to put a cork in it.
So, I guess this is a plea for some love for the young people, mostly, who work every day to tell you what's going on. They will make mistakes, and hopefully there are some old school News Directors to set them straight, and give you the story plain and simple. You might not like it. It may not agree with your politician-du-jour. But almost everyone I worked with in that 52 years, was trying to get it right. I worked with democrats and republicans, and almost all left that at the door. Hell, on Facebook, I only know their politics after they retired, and am frankly surprised by some. And that's good.
So, it seems the era of Charles Foster Kane has returned and we’ll all have to wear little donkey or elephant pins on our lapels so you know where we are coming from. Personally, mine will simply say “rosebud.”