The news business had its golden era over the first three or four decades after World II, a time when journalism acquired its badge of honor thanks to the likes of broadcasters Edward R. Murrow, Eric Severeid and Walter Cronkite, and later Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, Dan Rather and others. There were print heroes, too, of course, men and women who made their names during World War II and, later, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
They taught Americans that journalism was a noble effort pursued by decent people in pursuit of the truth and nothing but the truth. It was a radical concept in a nation where the press had always been politically biased and driven by the pursuit not of truth but profit, either political or financial or both.
The decline of the great newspapers, the corporate takeover of television newsrooms, the rise of the Internet and the need to generate content in an endless stream with a shrinking budget and staff have changed all that. Consumers of news now need to take everything with a grain of salt, as they probably did when the republic was new and all newspapers were unabashedly biased.
I still think about news the way I learned to think in the 1960s and 1970s. Even “60 Minutes” is making me roll my eyes these days. Recently it profiled Hugh Jackman, sending Steve Kroft to Australia to walk with the star through the halls of his high school and behold the very stage where he first tasted the joys of performing.
I suspect everything he had to say about himself and his craft has been reported elsewhere. A few days after watching the interview, I stumbled one sleepless night upon a “Les Miserables” YouTube promo clip in which Jackman enthusiastically spewed exactly the same stuff he’d told Kroft.
Rehashed promotional fodder on “60 Minutes”? Don Hewitt, who used to pop into the newsroom at The Southampton Press when I edited it, understood why Hugh Jackman may be of particular interest if you’re “Entertainment Tonight” but if you’re “60 Minutes” why bother if there’s nothing new and fresh in the story, much less what he feeds you?
This is what the business devotes its resources to these days instead of big, complicated stories about important things. They’re easy and cheap and they entertain, so why not?
When I was a kid, CBS News put together a documentary every month for a program called “CBS Reports.” One piece, called “Harvest of Shame,” about the lives of migrant farm workers, was riveting. I saw it as a kid and again as a journalism student in 1979. Can you imagine a network spending the money to film real documentaries today? The best they do now is fill out a few interviews with re-creations and simulations and some clips.
The disappearance of a national forum that reaches into millions of living rooms at once is celebrated today as a good thing. No longer do a few people sitting in New York decide what’s news and what isn’t and how to play the story. Okay. But who do we trust now? Nobody. It’s one reason we spend so much time spinning our wheels over ideology and myth instead of substance and fact. We live in a fantasy land.
I was very lucky to have learned the news business at a time when the old standards still applied. My boss was a newsman who had worked at the Hartford Courant and the Washington Post. By training and by nature, he was an independent, critical thinker who was fascinated by the world and how it worked. He was not a marketing man or salesman. Stories weren’t designed to reach markets or please advertisers or to entertain the most people at the cheapest possible cost — just as our stories here at the Reporter still are not. But the Reporter is the exception to the rule, a little island of honesty in a sea of baloney.
I’m pleased to have been a part of this noble little enterprise on and off now for 13 years.