The death of Walter Cronkite has occasioned an outpouring of grief for the media personality dubbed "The Most Trusted Man in America", by the media's own polls. Cronkite, like Woodward and Bernstein, or Neil Sheehan, served as a turning point as the media's love affair with itself went from creating its own icons, to treating those icons as a vital part of the national culture.
News reporting began with one medium, the printed press. As technology improved, the transmission of news became more instantaneous and one medium became many, the media. Radio, television and the internet have each added a quantum increase in speed, so that reporting that once took hours or days, can take minutes. This acceleration in speed has made the media more omnipresent than ever. Across multiple media formats, the same message goes through over and over again with terribly trustworthy men and women hard at work explaining America to itself.
The convenience of the media remains its great asset. Advertising allows the media to sell access to its readers, but it is the unofficial product being sold that is the real problem. Across all the mediums, the message is not simple news, but advocacy. Media bias did not begin yesterday. When Jefferson wanted to take a poke at Washington, Hamilton and Adams, he used independent newspapers as a front for a propaganda war that threw around charges of treason, adultery and worse. Adams responded with the "Alien and Sedition Acts", which liberal historians selectively condemn without taking note of what inspired them.
But as the media has become more omnipresent, its bias has also become more standardized and absolute. Wire services, network newscasts, cable news networks, nationwide radio chains that rely on recorded newsreaders, and finally the internet itself, has eroded community news. Once upon a time the editor of a regional paper printed what he thought of a matter first, and then would have to wait a week or so to find out if the New York Times agreed with him, assuming he cared about that sort of thing. Today a consensus on a news story emerges within a very short time, a consensus forged by the biggest media groups with the most bandwidth. Defying that consensus is risky and demands an effort of will. A story can no longer be run that defies the consensus without accounting for it in some way. And that consensus has meant the death of the free press.
That consensus represents the media's perspective, better known as "explaining America to itself." Are Americans really such hopeless dullards that they need their own country explained to them? That is certainly how the media sees them. Their contempt for the average American leaks through as pandering and the shameless rise of infotainment. It comes through in the iconization of newsreaders and increasingly dumbing down their reporting, while amping up their agenda. Like a propagandist screaming through a bullhorn, the media doesn't care if you understand what happened, they want you to take away a simple message from what happened, their message.
Through the media's eye, what matters about a shooting is that it could have been prevented with tighter gun control laws. What matters about a patient's death is that it could have been prevented with government run health care. What matters about a suicide bombing is that it perpetuates the cycle of violence. What matters about a homeless man's death is that we need more government public housing. What matters ultimately is the media's perspective, and that perspective is ruthlessly agenda driven. Sometimes it is camouflaged with selective storytelling and between the lines bias, but lately it is hardly being camouflaged at all. And that too is the ugliest sign of contempt from the media to date.
The rise of the internet has threatened the media's monopolization of the public debate, which is one reason why it has become so tempting to look at Cronkite as representing a golden age, a mythical period when all Americans listened to and believed one man. Mostly though the internet has threatened the profitability of the media, more than it has threatened it as a monopoly.
The mainstream media's offerings are still where people go for news, and while more hardy souls are going off the reservation to blogs, the space off the reservation is often defined by the media as well. The big media monopolies still have massive power and brand name recognition on their side, and while newspapers may be closing, and radio stations may be getting a bit shaky, it will take more than that to make the media go away.
Yet the internet has attacked the media's Achilles heel, convenience. Americans did not buy newspapers, listen to the radio or watch network newscasts because of trust, so much as because of convenience. And the internet has made convenience accessible to everyone. No broadcaster could compete with Cronkite, no one man handbill operation could compete with the New York Times. On the internet though it's all just content, and while the media still has the power, that power comes at a high dollar and cents price, and without the monopoly, its profitability is eroding its ability to maintain that power. Paying a large staff costs money. So does advertising. And internet advertising isn't profitable enough to cover that bet.
The New York Times as we know it will perish. So will most of the major papers. The monthly news magazines who have banked big on infotainment and lifestyle features, Newsweek and Time Magazine, don't have a bright future ahead of them either. Not when their only real use is as something to read while waiting for the doctor to see you now. The network newscasts will follow. Cronkite was forced out by CBS and Dan Rather due to his age. His old seat was turned over to Rather, who was forced out by CBS due to his own age, and a breaking scandal. His ridiculously overpaid replacement is Katie Couric who doesn't so much read the news, as sneeze it. She in turn will be forced out when CBS gives up hope that she can bring in a younger audience. The CBS newscast today is the lowest rated of the big three networks. Had Cronkite stuck around for a few years, he would have likely seen it die as well.
But that does not mean the media is over and done with. The New York Times may be dead, but Politico is the new New York Times. Just as the Drudge Report is the new New York Post. The old media will die, but a new media is being born. And the essential problem of the media will remain. That problem is the presumption of explaining America to itself through the media's eye. It is the presumption that just as doctors treat physical problems and lawyers treat legal problems, that the job of the media is to treat what they see as America's social problems.
By reporting not the news, but what it sees as the news, the media has repeatedly hijacked America's political discourse to put across their agenda. When the media mournfully looks back at the golden age of Cronkite, Woodward and Bernstein; they are remembering the golden period when despite the will of the voters and the values of most Americans; their agenda became the national agenda. And a nation of the people, by the people and for the people; became a nation of the politicians, by the media and for those watching the media.