One of the antidotes for times of uncertainty is nostalgia. Which is the argument for The Newsroom, whose second season opens this spring on HBO. Series creator Aaron Sorkin gives us the media in a way we might wish it to be but fear it is no longer. His characters put together a news program that shoulders its way past all the things that are worrisome about the media today. The broadcast rises above the trivial, resists sensation, even fights off the corrupting influence of ratings-obsessed managers.
We need this, it seems, because what we face in the real world these days is confusing. Not so much in terms of news content, but in terms of where that content might be coming from. I’m old enough, as one of my contemporaries says, “to remember when there was News.” A time before a vastly increased corporate influence ensured that audience size was pretty much all that counted, and before the advent of 24-hour cable news took away the hegemonic power of the networks’ daily packaged shows. Before journalists embedded in military units became acceptable, as did the explanations that fewer and fewer media companies had money to spend on serious investigation. Before the rise of the Internet left newspapers reeling, and blogs and tweets outflanked major media organs.
At age 60, I still get my main news from a daily morning paper and an evening television broadcast. The latter’s pharmaceutical ads suggest few viewers younger than me are likely to be watching. They are elsewhere, swimming in the tsunami of constant information, getting stories from “crowdsourcing,” migrating to choices that fit their ideology, be it Fox News at one extreme or Real Time With Bill Maher at the other.
One by one, nails have been driven into the coffin of what was once a sturdy relationship between the media and the public. In the United Kingdom in late 2011, an investigation commenced in a windowless hearing room in the bowels of the Royal Courts of Justice. There, the Leveson Inquiry called witnesses from both the media and public officialdom — including Prime Minister David Cameron — and gasped as their testimony completely devastated public trust. In their insatiable quest for an edge, reporters at newspapers owned by media titan Rupert Murdoch had hacked into the phones of everyone from members of the royal family to a murdered student. Shame — not to mention criminal charges — landed on a number of high-profile heads. Granted, the fuss centred on a sleazy tabloid on the other side of the Atlantic. But the implications have also been disconcerting in North America, where Murdoch owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, HarperCollins (including HarperCollins Canada) and more. Oh, the media will continue to operate, perhaps more busily than ever, but it will not be the same. As at the end of any long-lasting relationship, we are left a bit bereft, a bit nostalgic, but mostly uncertain.
We’ve always had comforting models of what journalism should look like. Many were fictional, like Mary Tyler Moore playing reporter Mary Richards on the six o’clock news at WJM Minneapolis in the 1970s. In the real world, the enduring example was born in June 1972 when the Washington Post, running stories by a couple of young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set the tone for a relationship that would hold sway for more than a generation. The public marvelled as Woodward and Bernstein, through the power of their printed words, brought down a corrupt president. Every young journalist aspired to emulate them; journalism schools began to emphasize investigative reporting.
For a long time, certain non-negotiables governed our view of newsgathering. One was the sense that journalism was not a job like any other. Canadian-born Peter Jennings, the late longtime anchor of ABC News, once declared that he “grew up in a household where to be a journalist . . . was seen as an opportunity to be a public servant.” In 1787, Edmund Burke defined scribblers in the parliamentary gallery as the fourth estate, with a social place and role. An element critical to this role was gaining and maintaining public trust. For a generation and a half, certainly, the central myth of the media has been “trust.” The veteran CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was widely known as “the most trusted man in America.” Media stalwarts like Lisa LaFlamme, Peter Mansbridge, the Globe and Mail and the New York Times would be nowhere without this compact: we let them be our eyes and ears while trusting them to be objective, balanced, truthful. We have faith they won’t let the powerful get away with anything at our expense.
With signs of this time-honoured pact collapsing, reactions have included nostalgia, revisionism and some good old-fashioned cynicism. On the revisionist side is Douglas Brinkley’s recent book Cronkite, where he suggests that the myth of the most trusted man in America is larger than deserved. We learn that Cronkite and his colleagues at CBS, in order to get an edge on other news organizations, bugged the credentials committee meeting room at the Republican National Convention way back in 1952. That the venerated broadcaster, the voice of America, had feet of clay fits perfectly with the post-Christian deconstruction of all pillars of authority.
The Newsroom’s characters, while failing to transcend the psychodrama of constant romantic hookups with colleagues, do support the authoritative voice of the anchor when he finally sits down in front of the camera. But that’s just nostalgia. So what now? Perhaps it’s a good thing that an all-too-exalted media sphere comes down a peg or two. Yet neither the media nor society can afford a relationship that turns cynical. What should the journalism schools teach now? Perhaps their main job should be to prepare both young reporters and their audiences for a truly uncharted future.
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