This week’s Media Guardian column:
Good night to Murrow’s legacy of power
A new film about journalist Ed Murrow looks back at the monopolistic influence of American TV news, which is today struggling to assert itself against the popularity of the internet
Monday October 24, 2005
Edward R. Murrow was a god of American journalism – not just because he set the standard for radio and television news we still see today (well, at least some of the time), and not just for his fearless rooftop reporting during the London Blitz. Murrow has been idolised even more for his courageous televised attack against Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose paranoid hunt for Communism under every bed in the 1950s led to the birth of another dreaded ism in this nation: McCarthyism.
In Good Night, and Good Luck, which premieres at the London Film Festival on November 3, George Clooney has produced and co-starred in a smoky, nostalgic, black-and-white, cinematic memorial to Murrow and his confrontation with McCarthy. It conjures up Murrow’s ghost just as America’s scandal-scarred and budget-bruised journalistic institutions are taking on the mood of haunted houses.
But I have contrarian views about Murrow’s real legacy in journalism. As laudable as his stand against American tyranny was – and it was – and as beautifully made as this film is – and it is – I wonder whether Murrow’s triumph did not lead, if inadvertently, to a half-century of journalistic haughtiness, self-importance and separation from the public, which is proving to be the downfall of the news business today. Declared dead
Murrow’s disciples came to believe that the wattage of their broadcast towers entitled them to equivalent power in society. They thought they were no longer just hacks looking out for the common man – as common men themselves – but were instead saviours of society, and rich ones at that. Not merely “newsreaders”, as you call them in Britain, our TV faces dubbed themselves “anchors”. And they gave Murrow’s home, CBS, not a diminutive nickname like “the Beeb”, but instead crowned it “the Tiffany Network”. They thought they could do no wrong.
These founding fathers of TV news could convince themselves of their invincibility because they came into journalism just as television itself destroyed competition among local newspapers. In almost every market in America, TV’s entrance established an era of media monopolies, of fewer voices and less diversity of views. CBS News, and the rest of TV and print journalism, became isolated atop the pedestals they built for themselves.
But then along came Dan Rather, Murrow’s successor at CBS News, who was shamed out of his anchor chair – or driven from it by bloggers – when he cocked up a report on President George W Bush’s military service. And along came declining trust in American journalism. And along came the bottomless downsizing of CBS News and of the entire news industry. And so the age of news-from-on-high that Murrow founded has ended, thanks in part to the challenge of us hacks on the internet. The era has been declared dead by the president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, who acknowledges: “We have to abandon any claim to omniscience.”
Is that not ironic: the most mass medium in history, television, gave birth to a class of media snobs. Yet the more exclusive medium, the internet, cuts the big guys down to earth and once again empowers the people we once called the masses.
It is equally ironic that after Murrow, American journalism wrapped itself in an ethic of objectivity. Murrow was hardly objective. He was highly opinionated. He was on a crusade, God bless him. Yet soon after his great moment against McCarthy, we came to believe that objectivity was the highest virtue of journalism and journalism school.
I have long ascribed this peculiarly American creed of journalistic objectivity to our one-size-fits-all media marketplace, which lasted from the mid 50s (with the spread of television) to the mid 80s (when the remote control reached 50% penetration in America and gave us power over media again). In those days, if you had to be everything to everyone, you tried to offend no one and serve no side over another. It was good business – it was marketing – but we called it objectivity.
Yet in Good Night, I think I caught a glimpse of another root of the objectivity era: fear. Murrow’s CBS News colleague and friend, Don Hollenbeck, committed suicide when he found himself under whisper attack by McCarthyite blacklisters. In the film, critics accuse journalists of slanting the news and the journalists deny it – even those who have just tilted bravely against McCarthy. It smacks of pandering to pressure: rather than proudly declaring, you bet we’re biased in favour of the little guy against the tyranny of power, the journalists cowered and said, ain’t no slanters here, just us chickens.
This worship of objectivity did not overtake British journalism, thanks to its diversity of national media voices. You are surely well aware of the political worldview of the paper you are now holding (or viewing on a screen) and if you do not like it, you can pick up a competitor. This “British model” works, we now think, so today in America, we are looking to your example as one solution to our problems. For too long, like so many reportorial robots, we denied having any perspective. But in the world of the internet, where the highest virtue is transparency, some of us are coming to see objectivity as a lie of omission, a refusal to admit that we are human and have a point of view.
Biting the dust
To quote CBS’s Heyward: “We have to figure out a way to incorporate point of view, even while protecting the notion of fair-minded journalism dedicated to accurate reporting without fear or favour.” Besides, perspective is proving to be profitable: Rupert Murdoch’s opinionated Fox News is a hit and so, as a counterweight, is the online Guardian in America.
And there is another piece of Murrow’s legacy that is biting the dust: he disdained the notion that journalism is or should be a business. Still today, every time a network or a newspaper reduces staff in the face of plummeting advertising and circulation revenue, journalists wail about the cruelties of capitalism and, at CBS, they invoke Murrow’s ghost again. But I argue that they have only insulated the news business from the pressures – and wisdom – of the marketplace. So I celebrate the exploding of America’s media monopoly thanks to the internet. I applaud the death of the mass market and the rise of the mass of niches. I dance on the grave of one-size-fits-all news.
Yet Good Night did gave me pause. It made me wonder whether we might miss the omnipresent platform that broadcast news was. For it was that power that allowed Murrow to subdue McCarthy and defend democracy. In our new, distributed world, we’ll have to re-aggregate ourselves into a powerful chorus of voices to be heard. Will we be loud enough? We don’t yet know.
But we certainly won’t be shy. It so happens that I saw Good Night, about the founders of one medium, broadcast news, with one of the founders of the next medium, weblogs. Before the lights went down, Nick Denton, owner of the hot blogging salon Gawker Media, told me how a recent article about blogging missed what truly sets this phenomenon apart, namely: “We don’t give a fuck.” As opposed to Murrow’s men, who certainly did.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com