Vanity Fair's national editor Todd Purdum has a long piece in the most recent issue (in the print edition only, as far as I can tell) bemoaning what he argues are the new and unique challenges facing the Obama administration, including the state of the news media. Purdum's opinions on the state of the news business boil down to a call for the press's continuing political uniformity.
He offers a quote from White House adviser Valerie Jarrett that also captures the author's opinions on the issue. Purdum writes:
Obama's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett looks back wistfully to a time when credible people could put a stamp of reliability on information and opinion: "Walter Cronkite would get on and say the truth, and people believed the media," she says. Today, no single media figure or outlet has that power to end debate, and in pursuit of "objectivity," most honest news outlets draw the line at saying flatly that something or other is untrue, even when it plainly is.
Purdum's and Jarrett's statements are comprised of one part revisionist nostalgia, and one part liberal elitism. "Objectivity" was never really present. What they're longing for is the reliable white-collar liberalism of the 20th century news media.
The uniformity of political views among the media and governing elite feeds a longing for an era of objectivity that was never really there. Jarrett's comment about Cronkite - and Purdum's endorsement of that comment - demonstrate the insularity of the elite liberal worldview.
Cronkite was hardly the paragon of "objectivity" that so many journalists and academics make him out to be. As NewsBusters has documented, Cronkite had an agenda, and occasionally used his massive soapbox to promote it. His occasional activism included, FBI files recently revealed, aiding Vietnam war protesters - hardly a sign of political objectivity for the man who, according to media lore, set in motion events that turned public support against the war effort.
Purdum seems aggravated that journalists "draw the line at saying flatly that something or other is untrue, even when it plainly is." If Cronkite is a model of journalistic objectivity, yet famously opined against the war effort, it stands to reason that he believes what Cronkite was reporting (that the war was not winnable) was simple fact.
But as we now know, Cronkite was not weighing in from a position of objectivity. He was politically inclined to oppose the war, as demonstrated by his aid to protestors. So what Purdum is advocating in waxing nostalgic about Cronkite is in fact journalistic activism - injecting political opinion into ostensibly "straight-news" reporting.
That Purdum is also concerned about the liberal elite's loss of control over the news cycle - that he longs for a "responsible" party to "control" the news - demonstrates that he is only comfortable with the Legacy Media having the power to use their pulpit to weigh in on political issues.
Purdum obviously considers some facts to be "plainly" correct, and therefore worthy of an on-air opinion or two. But surely Cronkite thought his view of the futility of the Vietnam war was "correct."
His longing for Cronkite's era of journalism has nothing to do with contemporary citizen-reporters expressing opinions. It has to do with them expressing the wrong opinions. He and Jarrett, given the chance, would return the United States to a media environment in which a small group of liberal elites retained a strangle-hold on the news cycle and used it to promote the correct opinions.
And who has the correct opinions? Why the 20th century New York/DC media gatekeepers, of course. Purdum writes that "the capacity to assert, allege, and comment is now infinite, and subject to little responsible control."
This is where the element of liberal elitism comes in: Purdum is concerned that modern media gatekeepers have not satisfied the prerequisites for traditional purveyors of information. Increasing numbers do not have Ivy League degrees, did not attend journalism school, and have not been privy to the upper-middle class, urbane lifestyle that pervaded and defined the 20th century newsroom.
"Responsible control" in this context means control wielded by professionals who have the proper credentials, and share the homogenous values and experiences of the intelligentsia. Purdum and his ilk are concerned that the great unwashed masses are gaining influence over the national dialogue.
In fact, those masses can define the conversation. And that, by Purdum's account, is the problem. A single blogger can upload an iPhone video of a congressman saying something stupid, the Drudge Report can pick it up, and almost instantaneously the entire country can be talking about it. All without aid from traditional media outlets! It's a frightening loss of control for those who dominated the news cycle for so long - and determined what was and was not news.
Journalists have always been keen on telling Americans that the Republic could not survive without the media elite. That's a convenient position for people with such power. Now that they stand to lose that power, it's full court press on their respective soapboxes to convince Americans that they, the traditionally-defined media, are needed. Hence, Purdum's dire tone.
Is journalism-by-the-masses less polished? Certainly. Does it spell the downfall of traditional news outlets? Maybe. Would the demise of a news cycle dominated by individuals with a uniform worldview and the consequent homogeneity of their left-of-center politics be a total disaster for the nation and its government? Only if you're a member of that declining elite.
Purdum clearly is, and worries that the "wrong" opinions are making inroads into the national political dialogue through new media, talk radio, and the Fox News Channel. The latter, by Purdum's account, "is waging a fiercely partisan war against the administration."
The partisanship, though, is nothing new. What is new, and Purdum fairly notes this fact, is the omnipresence of an unprecedentedly large number of opinions, many of them very strong, some of them hostile. Writes Purdum:
The world is so constantly with us that the White House press office no longer even tries to hold a daily morning "gaggle," when beat reporters used to ask press secretaries about the expected news of the day, because it will almost certainly be overtaken by events.
Under the 20th century, Old Media conception of the news cycle, the White House did not need to respond to events in real time. Barring some major event, it could hold one press briefing every 24 hours covering the day's events, and providing comment for the following day's print edition or the evening news broadcast.
The proliferation of citizen journalism demands that official respond to more people, and face questions of a broader nature and variety. In that sense, it does not change the essential nature of the news cycle, but only broadens it. But the "hyperkinetic" news cycle, as Purdum dubs it, changes the means by which officials must respond to reporters and handle information.
There are changes to which governing officials and reporters must adapt. Purdum is wrong to wish for a return to the 20th century model, where the opinions of elites were more worthy than those of the "the masses." A diversity of opinions among the gatekeepers of information enhances, not diminishes, the national dialogue. That is a change all Americans should welcome.