What's Wrong With Our Media?

**UPDATE #2** – Chuck Todd was apparently stung by all the uproar over his referring to potential investigations of criminal wrongdoing (i.e. – torture) by the Bush administration as nothing more than “cable catnip,” that he agreed to do a podcast-chat with Glenn Greenwald. Audio is here. (warning: it ain’t pretty. As Digby says, “Turns out Chuck Todd isn’t all that bright“…

**UPDATE** – by now, everyone in the wired world has already heard of the sad – though not unexpected – death of Walter Cronkite. He was truly a giant in his day, perhaps more so than anyone who came before OR after him. Yes, there are people who will swear, with some justification, that Edward R. Murrow is the true mold from which all journalists are struck. But Murrow came before Cronkite, and his time was at the very dawn of the television age, when many people in many places still had only radios, if that. Cronkite ruled the CBS Evening News from the dawn of the sixties to the beginning of the ’80s – a pivotal time in American history if ever there was one. And, by the early 1960s, most major markets had all three networks broadcasting a fairly strong signal, so that that only the truly rural areas went without Cronkite’s nightly, avuncular presence.

By now, in the ongoing orgy of media coverage that surrounds the death of “one of their own,” anyone who’s been watching even casually will have also already heard the oft-reported fact that, in the early ’70s, Cronkite was rated in a very comprehensive national poll as the “most trusted man in America” (little-known and, from what I can tell, completely unreported fact: in that same survey, the #2 “most trusted” figure was Ralph Nader). And he was: people understood, from having watched Cronkite report the news every night, that he genuinely strove to keep his own personal preferences and predilections out of his “just the facts” newscasts. If Cronkite said it, it must be true.

Of course, not even so well-intentioned and well-connected a guy as Walter Cronkite could be right 100% of the time. Cronkite occasionally got it wrong, too: just like all of the rest of us. But the reason he was the “most trusted man in America” had to do not with his infallibility, but with the public’s (correct) perception that if Cronkite DID get a story wrong, it was an honest mistake, and not a result of either bias or lazy reporting.

What a timely – and also apt – contrast to this very story regarding Chuck Todd.

It’s not that I – or, I suspect (though I don’t know the man at all), Glenn Greenwald – want to single out Chuck Todd in particular for excoriation as a poor journalist. He just happens to be both the most recent and most egregious example of most of the major things that are wrong with the entire model of today’s journalism. If anything, the fact that Todd is not Bill O’Reilly or (gak) Michael Savage only serves to press the point home even more convincingly. Say what you will about Savage and O’Reilly and their ill-intentioned ilk (no, really: that wasn’t just rhetorical – I mean it: please DO say what you like about O’Reilly, et. al – because I certainly do, regularly), but everyone who’s watched their shows even a couple of times is perfectly clear that what they’re doing is news-based opinion shows. You might like the opinion, you might not…but you’ll never be uncertain that what you are watching IS opinion.

But what Chuck Todd and Walter Cronkite have in common is that both are – in theory anyway – journalists, as opposed to merely opinion-mongers or highly-paid bloviators. And that is why Greenwald’s critique of the Chuck Todd interview in the link below is so devastating and so disheartening: because what’s truly wrong with journalism today is not the presence of ill-intentioned bloviators like O’Reilly or Hannity or (to be fair) Olbermann. It’s that there is more similarity in practice these days between guys like Chuck Todd and the aforementioned opinion-show hosts than there is between Chuck Todd and Walter Cronkite. And that’s not only a crying shame, it’s truly deleterious to the functioning of an extremely important part of our democracy, especially in this atomized, alienated digital age where the speed of communication is offset by the rise in the barriers between “the common man” and the powerful. At a time when we’re simultaneously more connected through technological marvels to even the highest levels of opinion-shaper and decision-maker, the corporate and institutional structures which serve to shield them from us have also grown exponentially. That’s why, even though we will never again return to the era that Cronkite inhabited, where the nightly news anchor could be voted the most trusted person in the country and there were only three choices on the evening news, we still desperately need men – perhaps even more now than ever before – with Cronkite’s integrity and beliefs about the role of journalism….and fewer men who have sucked up the beltway poison that deference=access and access=career advancement. Cronkite’s career became legendary because of how he dealt with these questions from the beginning. Men like Chuck Todd seem to be cut from a very different cloth: one that values “look out for number one” and networking over being willing (to paraphrase Joseph Pulitzer himself) to “have no friends” in one’s professional capacity.

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Glenn Greenwald had an absolutely devastating takedown of MSNBC’s Chuck Todd yesterday. It notes the obvious fact that, to the degree major media figures ever even acknowledge media controversy or criticism, their boilerplate response-of-first-resort is essentially that “they report, you decide.” In other words, they will tell you in their defense that it’s their job as journalists to merely report what happened without hint of bias.

Chuck Todd used to be NBC’s (and MSNBC’s) political director, meaning that it was he who directed behind-the-scenes polling for the network, and did the analysis of the numbers for various news/opinion figures on those networks, on an as-needed basis. But with the death of Tim Russert and the selection of David Gregory (gak) to incompetently fill his shoes over at Meet the Press, there was an opening at NBC in Gregory’s old slot of chief White House correspondent. And NBC chose Todd to fill that slot. So now, Chuck Todd’s primary role is to be a reporter at the White House. Reporter. Not opinion journalist, nor talking head, nor pundit.

And yet – as Greenwald ably demonstrates – Todd still, in the course of his new job, repeatedly appears on various NBC/MSNBC shows, to “add color/legitimacy” to the White House beat. Only Todd is inconveniently – and regularly – drawn out by either his own beliefs and biases or the urging of the hosts on whose shows he appears, into giving very detailed opinions about certain subjects. In short, Todd is frequently – even so often as to say usually – far more on the pundit end of the scale than the objective reporter end. Nothing wrong with pundits – as long as they’re clearly identified as such. That’s why although I rarely agree with either of them, and in fact excoriate both regularly for the ridiculous transparency of their biases and lapses in logic, I have no fundamental problem with guys like Hannity and O’Reilly: because they are quite clearly identified, both by their networks and self-admittedly – as pundits, not as presumably objective journalists. But, as Greenwald points out so very thoroughly (and, if you’re Chuck Todd, devastatingly), guys like Todd can’t have their cake of objectivity and simultaneously lick off the frosting of punditry. At least not without seeming like hypocritical tools. Read Greenwald’s whole piece, it’s definitely worth your time.