The Voice of God
Like all network news anchormen, Tom Brokaw had the voice.
He had other attributes that contributed to success as one of the three nightly authorities on what had happened that day in the country and the world: a blandly handsome face, impressive helmet of hair, and a middle American earnestness that convinced millions to turn to him each night to help make sense of things. Along with Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, Brokaw made up one of the most exclusive fraternities on earth.
Most importantly, Brokaw had gravitas, the most essential attribute for a network anchor in the days when the position was one of the most visible in all of media. Sure, he had done his share of fluff on the Today show, but there was no doubt that Brokaw was a straight news man. He had covered the Nixon White House during Watergate, and covered Tiananmen Square and countless other moments when the haze of life breaks and events move into history.
In my childhood, Tom Brokaw’s voice was the sound of something important happening. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, with a local newspaper that was nothing much to speak of. Tom Brokaw and Newsweek magazine were how information got delivered in my house. I depended on him as an outlet to the larger outside world.
I looked forward to the delivery of Newsweek each Tuesday for the depth of the reporting and writing — as well as the movie and book reviews and other cultural coverage it provided. It was authoritative, the same quality that made Brokaw so appealing. Even though you knew that they couldn’t cover everything, and they both got their share of things wrong — as any journalist does — their level of certainty was comforting.
That type of assuredness is what is missing from today’s post-news media environment. Journalism has been hurt by the gradual erosion of collective truth. While far from perfect, the network news and the newsweeklies provided a common frame of reference, a jumping off point for the national conversation. You could agree or disagree with the direction of the narrative, but at least everyone was beginning from the same origin.
The idea of a post-news world seems ridiculous in a time when information is easier to come by than ever before. There is more information available today, through the raw dispersal power of the Internet, than ever before. It’s easier than ever for people to find out when things happen. But the post-news world comes about precisely because of the access to information. It was created by people exploiting that information for their own ends.
The value of journalism is to bring facts and information together to provide context and nuance, to show where the individual facts fit into the larger picture. When everyone can choose their own outlet with its own context gathered from its own collection of facts, they create their own realities.
The fact of journalism is that reporting is easy, but good reporting can be very hard. Every freshman journalism student is taught the basics of which questions should be answered in a news story: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. But as every working reporter quickly realizes, not all of those questions carry equal weight. The Who, What, When and Where of a story are usually pretty straightforward. But the Why and How will get you every time. The first four questions are objective facts. But answering How and Why are subjective and depend on each person’s perspective.
We’ve become a society in search of easy solutions. We’ve lost the idea that most of life’s big issues are complicated. Problems with easy answers tend to get solved quickly. The real challenges are the ones that get left over. In a world where many day-to-day needs can be addressed with a few clicks of a mouse and our phones are the main portal for most of our social interactions, intractable problems can seem insurmountable. It’s easy to give in to the appeal of someone who claims to have a simple answer. But we need to appreciate nuance, and to remember that the details matter.
Today’s media environment is hostile to nuance. In today’s customized news market, everyone gets the part of the story that coincides with their worldview. Armed with those elements of the “facts,” they can’t see how someone else’s “facts” could be valid when they so clearly conflict with their own. The old rules don’t apply anymore. Social media and online outreach has allowed campaigns to go over the heads of the media. People can form their own narrative by self-selecting their information sources. They don’t want the networks or the pundits to tell them “what it means.” But it’s impossible to have a conversation if you can’t even agree on what the terms of the discussion should be.
The post-news reality of American society was brought into focus during the 2016 presidential election.
The media’s bafflement about Trump’s rise and its criticisms of his behavior had little impact with Trump’s supporters because those voters didn’t read those stories or watch those shows. The media’s credibility has been destroyed by 50 years of attacks from (mostly) conservative critics. They’ve succeeded in turning “the media” into just another special interest and part of the dreaded establishment, and thereby rendered the media’s damaging stories irrelevant. Criticisms of Trump from the Washington Post or New York Times were a badge of honor among his supporters. And that’s if they even saw them. With so many options from which to get their news, who knows how many Trump supporters even saw stories about his outrageous behavior?
Along with being outpaced by technology, the media have contributed to their own demise. The Washington media deal with the horse race and inside baseball reports. The chattering classes that fill more and more of cable news’ air time — and the podcasts and websites of previously print-based outlets — prove over and over that their supposedly expert analyses are little more than barely educated guesses.
The experts these panels rely on are part of an undisguised journo-political complex in which they move freely back and forth between partisan advising gigs and providing analysis and commentary on their once and future colleagues and employers. This cycle was perhaps most egregiously displayed in CNN’s hiring of Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowsky. But it was also clear in the pundit gigs of Democratic staffers like Patty Solis Doyle and Donna Brazile. Brazile was unceremoniously dumped when WikiLeaks revealed that she had forwarded the Clinton campaign information on debate questions during the primaries. But what, exactly, did CNN expect?
There is certainly value in hearing from people who have been in the room when political decisions have been made. But how can viewers take their insights seriously when they are either still actively working with the very people whose actions they’re analyzing, or soon will be?
The media’s credibility has also been damaged by the financial struggles that have hit the industry in the past decade. It’s hard to be authoritative when people think you’re lucky just to have a job. And the exodus of experienced reporters, whether voluntary and involuntary, from newsrooms means that younger reporters with less experience and institutional knowledge (and who are willing to work for much less) are responsible for creating more and more coverage. Reporting is like any other job: it takes time and experience to be good at it. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of young reporters doing excellent work. But when much of the news out of Washington is being done by reporters who don’t remember the Clinton administration, much less Watergate, what isn’t being caught?
I’m not really arguing that we should turn back the clock. Along with being impractical, a return to the era of the powers that be, when there really was a media establishment, isn’t a solution. The days of Brokaw, let alone Lippmann and Alsop and Reston, have disappeared because the Internet has allowed anyone with a keyboard, a webcam, and an internet connection the opportunity to play newsman. That democratization of the marketplace of ideas has been good in some ways. But it has destroyed the idea of a collective truth.
And that has been dangerous.