Growing up long before digital and cable news sources became part of our daily existence, I remember my mother and father sitting in the living room reading the newspaper and watching one of the three networks’ evening news. Trusted and experienced journalists reported the news and analysis of the day. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Peter Jennings were household names, and their reports on the news from around the world were the gold standard of reporting in the day. (This is where you realize you’re reading the words of a dinosaur unearthed from somewhere in the 1950s.)
Much has changed since those days when citizens gathered their news from a few responsible news sources. Even though newsprint has gone digital for many readers, publishers are still committed to the newsprint form, as Arthur Sulzberger Jr. shared with a Boise audience recently about his family’s New York Times, which you can find in paper at newsstands around the nation.
Meanwhile, the digital versions of newspapers provide readers instant access to news — anytime, anywhere. Although the digital space may look and feel different than newsprint, the news is the news, and it delivers essentially the same news product as the days when Mom and Dad were catching up in our living room.
What has changed is how viewers and listeners access their news and commentary beyond the newspaper or its digital version. The major news networks have shifted considerable resources to their cable news channels, and have significantly altered the manner of delivering content and providing analysis.
Back in the day, viewers could not detect much political bias from network to network, just a straightforward effort to report what happened in the past 24 hours. It’s not as though ABC delivered a more liberal view of the news than NBC or that CBS delivered a more conservative view than its other two competitors. News commentators brought their own personalities to the news desk, and oftentimes viewers made their choices on criteria that had nothing to do with politics. Who was the most believable? Who could you trust?
The evening news is still with us, of course, but its viewers are aging and the overall viewership is not doing well with the rise of social media, streaming and cable TV. Cable TV, in particular, builds stations that appeal to an increasingly divided nation, with at least three camps — Fox, MSNBC and CNN. No matter your political persuasion, it’s difficult to deny the liberal and conservative bent of these channels, and when you throw in President Trump’s attacks on CNN, and CNN’s foolhardy efforts to place ideologues in combat with each other at the news desk, you have a formula for divisiveness in American politics my parents would not have understood.
Adding more fuel to the fire are AM radio stations, which spew their caustic commentary from the far right in what might be the most lopsided version of commentary and analysis you can find in the media.
So whether it’s the verbal fistfights and cacophony of critics talking over one another on cable channels, or AM radio’s move far to the right, the viewing and listening public have been dealt a great disservice by today’s commercial media empire.
For the most part, we expect critiques of network, cable and radio news to come from outside the media empire. Recently, however, veteran NBC News reporter and analyst William Arkin announced his resignation from NBC and delivered a stinging critique, claiming that NBC, “like the rest of the news media,” could no longer keep up with the world. He lamented the media’s focus on the “Trump circus” and “worried about how much else we are missing.”
Arkin complained about the media not holding national security leaders and generals accountable for their failures in what he called a state of perpetual war. In a reference to the 24-hour news cycle, he referred to reporters today as “exhausted parents of our infant (and infantile) social media children, suffering from a really bad case of not being able to ever take a breath.”
William Arkin has fixed the problem for himself. He decided to “take a step back and think” — pursue writing, commentary, a novel about 9/11, a book of nonfiction and some new book projects. So where’s that leave the rest of us?
In this crowded field of news reporting and cable free-for-alls, we still have control of the remote and the radio dial. We can simply turn off the circus and choose responsible news coverage. (My personal favorites are NPR and PBS.)
Of course, there is no substitute for the written word, but you already know that, because you are reading the Idaho Statesman either online or in print.
Can’t go wrong there.
Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers’ Corner at Boise State Public Radio.