Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Evolution of American Journalism

Three of the most significant figures in the history of American journalism never attended any college. H.L. Mencken, outspoken editorialist for the Baltimore Sun, editor of The American Mercury and The Smart Set, and author of the multi-volume classic, The American Language, learned the newspaper business by working at a newspaper. Much despised by leftists of the thirties, Westbrook Pegler dropped out of high school to cover sports for a Chicago paper and eventually became one of the most influential columnists of the century. But the journalist that set the standard for all that followed was Will Rogers.

Will Rogers neglected to graduate from high school, became a cow hand and then a vaudeville and circus performer and then a Broadway headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies. Transferring his stage political monologue to a newspaper column read by more than 40 million, Rogers parlayed his Oklahoma rural wit into a career that included 71 movies, a radio show, travels around the world and a personal relationship with the most powerful politicians in the country. He was probably the most famous American in the world at the time of his death in a plane crash near Barrow, Alaska in 1935. No American journalist has been able to match his record, but it's not for lack of effort.

These three all achieved their success with opinion pieces. Nuts and bolts news reporters, even with regular by-lines, remained anonymous to all but their contemporaries in the business. This changed in 1972 when a group of Republican operatives were apprehended inside the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through contacts with "Deep Throat", an informant that may have been FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, wrote a series of articles investigating that event and others connected to the Nixon White House. Trials and hearings were held, with television coverage that enthralled the nation, and a US president was forced to resign. Woodward and Bernstein became media rock stars, wrote highly successful books about the affair and were the subjects of books themselves as well as a Hollywood movie. Their road to acclaim and attendant financial success was noticed by others who took advantage of the later expanding footprint of television.

Foremost of the next generation of journalist/media stars were Dan Rather and Geraldo Rivera. Beginning with live television coverage of a hurricane on the Galveston waterfront followed by a break-through performance following the Kennedy assassination and later in native clothing in Afghanistan, Rather took over the position once held by the more conventional Walter Cronkite as America's pre-eminent television news figure. He relinquished this spot in 2004 with the promotion of an easily-exposed bogus expose' of George W. Bush's National Guard career. Nonetheless, his success changed the face of television news coverage to a form over substance, personality-driven configuration.

Rivera took a somewhat different path, relying on a more "news as entertainment and titillation" format that also involved him in the very events, sometimes manufactured, that he was supposedly covering, such as the "Capone's Tomb" episode. As a pioneer of the "trash TV" genre, Rivera has managed to maintain visibility through the years despite failures and embarrassments. Financially, if not critically, he continues to be a success.

A fact-based reportorial process meant to enlighten as well as inform has changed to what is basically entertainment with a personality focus. Money is the major factor in this transition. Ratings that drive advertising rates are perceived to hinge on the popularity of television news "stars". Katy Couric is the leading current example, with her $15 million+ contract with CBS.

Aside from a liberal/progressive slant on the news, the leading media outlets have adopted a feeding-frenzy approach featuring their stars giving breathless accounts of tragedies with interpretations and analysis by insider experts. The Giffords shooting in Tucson is an example of this phenomenon. The competitive nature of the media business has encouraged outlets to broadcast and publish conjecture before determining the basics of the event. The rewards for "scoops", even fallacious ones, both to individuals and the industry as a whole, so far outweigh the risks of failure, that we will continue to be wise to view with skepticism anything the media reports.

No comments: