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September 20, 2005

Golden Ages and Other Necessary Fictions

Eugene Robinson's Washington Post editorial discusses this week's Emmy Award tribute to TV anchormen Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel, connecting "one of the dreary telecast's few moments of genuine electricity" to the recent coverage of the Katrina catastrophe. In the editorial, Robinson notes that in covering Katrina, TV journalists fulfilled their obligation to inform the public rather than succumbing to "happy-faced oversimplification."

Specifically, Robinson cites the reporting from the Ninth Ward by CNN's Jeanne Meserve ("This is Armageddon") as the moment when he realized the seriousnes of the Katrina disaster (here's a long MP3 of Meserve's outstanding reporting--via), and I think Robinson is right that much of the reporting of the Katrina disaster has been impressive, far better than much of the reporting we've seen in recent years.

In criticizing the contemporary TV media (from which he distances himself as a "print-media" guy), Robinson cites the a "golden age of television news," naming the examples of Huntley and Brinkley, the early days of 60 Minutes, and Edward Murrow. There are certainly valuable reasons to identify that moment as a "golden age." In comparison to breathless round-the-clock coverage of "MWW" (or missing white women) and Bennifer, the high-minded sincerity of these figures offers a welcome alternative.

But in general every golden age is based on some form of exculsion (i.e., it's not golden for everyone), and while Robinson celebrates Jennings, Koppel, Rather, and their predecessors, it's hard for me not to think about the position of authority which those journalists and anchormen assumed. Implied in this comment, of course, is the fact that network news reporting, until fairly recently, was the domain of white men, but the more crucial problem--one that I see as persistent from the Golden Age to the current moment--is the very authoritarian structure of media itself, one that is underlined by concentrated media ownership, a topic that I've been thinking about a lot this week (I'm teaching Chomsky/Herman's "A Propaganda Model" and Greenwald's Outfoxed). And I think it's crucial here to retain Chomsky and Herman's comments, in part because comments about reporting rarely take this "industrial" argument into consideration (TV networks owned by large multinationals are not going to report stories that aren't in their interests), instead usually attributing bad reporting to personal weakness or laziness ("I'm glad to see the media finally developing a backbone").

That being said, I'm intrigued by Robinson's attempt to use these two images (the Emmy ceremony and the Katrina coverage) to revive a "golden age" of reporting, even if I'm suspicious that it never really existed. I don't think a "golden age" necessarily has to be true for it to be useful. Katrina coverage has inspired some self-criticism that might be productive. The difficulty here, of course, is in asking the right questions (the CNN anchor who is interviewing Meserve implies that reporters are sometimes criticized for being "thrill-seekers," which is one of the least of my concerns).

Posted by chuck at September 20, 2005 9:21 AM

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To defend the "golden age" concept a little, it's important to remember that broadcast news divisions operated at a loss through most of their history. CBS and its followers ran news programming to serve the "public interest" (and make nice with the FCC). It wasn't until after CNN showed that news could be a profit center and the deregulation of the Reagan era that revenue became a focus for news.

I'm not sure when the "golden age" formulation came into use, but I suspect it was after Watergate, when viewers began to tire of exposés and became nostalgic for an older news model. This might make for an interesting rhetoric project.

My old prof. John Downing was in town this past weekend, and in a session with grad students he posed the question of what effects can we really attribute to media concentration? It was sort of a tough one considering people have been doing MassComm research for 50-60 years and media effects have yet to be demonstrated at all. JD's a pretty committed lefty, so I'm sure he's not fond of concentration. He was just making the point that negative effects of concentration need to be interrogated more closely.

Posted by: McChris at September 20, 2005 3:28 PM

All good points. We talked a bit about the "fairness doctrine" in one of my media studies classes today. But the "Golden Age" phrasing is an interesting one, particularly in terms of what it ostensibly describes, which might be an older "pre-Watergate" model. And I would then be curious about the effects of such nostalgic formulations.

These questions about the effects of media concentration are also tough. I do think that Chomsky and Herman are fairly convincing on this issue in "A Propaganda Model," but given the sheer volume of televisual images on any network, it might also be hard to identify a singular effect.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 10:51 AM

Also, oddly enough, the point I originally planned to make was going to focus on the fact that there was little or no debate about whether or not to hold the Emmys after Katrina while the Emmys were delayed for several weeks after 9/11.

I'm not saying the Emmys should have been delayed (or that the Emmys really matter in the grand scheme of thengs), but the different responses to the two events have been striking.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 1:59 PM

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