A friend recently sent me some old videos of “Meet the Press.” Her father, a prominent Washington journalist, had been a frequent member of the panel. One of the videos was from the early sixties, the other from the early seventies.
Memory can be deceptive, and I really did not have clear recollections of the old “Meet the Press,” except for the sharp-edged voice of Lawrence E. Spivak, who produced the show and appeared each week. But I was jolted by the videos.
The first thing I noted was the sheer civility of the program. Whether hosted by Ned Brooks or Edwin Newman, there was a completely civilized tone, both in the questioning and in the replies by the week’s guest. The voices were lower, especially Ed Newman’s when he announced, “This is Edwin Newman inviting you to meet the press.” These were serious people doing serious work, and there was no call for showmanship.
But the second thing I noticed, and even more important, was the professionalism of the journalists who asked the questions. They had done their homework. They knew the subjects at hand. I could not tell what their politics were (and that’s good), but I could tell that they’d prepared their questions carefully. No “gotcha” stuff, no shouting, no grandstanding. They gave journalism a good name. And yes, they were older men and women, experienced reporters who’d probably lived through the Depression and World War II, and understood that they held a public trust.
We certainly have some fine journalists around today, and not everyone back decades ago was a gem. But I do think we’ve lost quite a bit in the media. Overall, our journalism has become more biased, less careful, and far more superficial. What are the reasons?
First, reporters 40 or 50 years ago were almost all trained as print journalists. They had learned to write and research in detail. In fact, even TV and radio networks preferred print-trained reporters because their training was likely to have been thorough. Today, many of the people you see on television started on television. They were trained in the quick process of TV news, where an “in depth” story lasts two minutes. They’ve never written at length. Indeed, much of the writing is done for them. The mind works differently when it’s been trained to deal with a great deal of information at once.
Second, the attention span of Americans has narrowed, and today’s journalists know it. They’re pressured to grab the reader’s or viewer’s attention quickly, often with sound bites or glib intros. The news itself has become secondary. Again, this is very much a reflection of the impact of television. Indeed the variety show, “Laugh-In,” a big entertainment hit in the late 60s, was shaped specifically to take advantage of the shortened attention span of the audience, which was beginning to be understood at the time.
Third, we’ve become a much more youth-oriented society. There’s always been an American fascination with youth, but it became an obsession from the 60s onward. The wise, experienced, gray heads of the “Meet the Press” panel have been pushed aside in favor of the young, attractive reporter, who probably doesn’t know much, but thinks he knows a great deal. There is no substitute for experience in journalism, but only experience teaches you that. I learned much from older journalists when I was at The New York Times. The only thing I learned from my contemporaries was the phone numbers of some attractive young ladies.
Fourth, we have, to some degree, replaced ability and experience with education. I don’t suggest that education is unimportant. A good liberal education is of enormous value to anyone, especially someone who writes and communicates. But education, in journalism and other fields, too often becomes a crutch. The old adage, “You can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much,” applies. I think we saw the crutch effect in some of the reporting from Vietnam. And many of today’s reporters seem to believe that what they learned in Government 101 gives them some special insight. No, it only gives them the bottom part of a foundation. The insight comes much later, maybe 30 years later.
Fifth, we have a generation of journalists that has not been shaped by cataclysmic events that brought pain and disruption to society. As noted above, the old panelists on “Meet the Press” saw a real Depression and a world war. We have had short, traumatic events, like the attacks of 9-11, but today’s crop of journalists has been pretty pampered. And many went directly into journalism from school, not stopping in the armed services or temporary jobs in-between. They missed the shaping knocks of work outside the newsroom.
And sixth, the pace of modern communications has meant a decreased emphasis on the kind of shoe-leather investigative reporting that makes great journalism work. Listening to the old “Meet the Press” panels, you just had the sense that those people had been around the block, and back again several times.
We can be better served by the press. I think we all realize that. But magic tricks, like hiring only college graduates, will not improve things. A return to basic standards, including the insistence that journalists spell words correctly and get facts right, is needed to bring journalism back to a more solid, less flighty position. Will that happen? I don’t know. It will take great publishers, and great network leaders, and they are in short supply these days.
FROM URGENT AGENDA (WWW.URGENTAGENDA.COM)
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