One of the reasons Tim Russert’s death last month struck such a nerve, especially among people in his business, is that it felt emblematic of the decline and fall of serious-minded, voice-of-God mass media: Network-news audiences are steadily shrinking, newspaper readership is in free fall, the newsmagazines struggle for relevance and profit, and now Russert’s gone.
Yet the flip side of the mainstream media’s crisis of confidence is the rather sudden, simultaneous proliferation of quasi-famous quasi-journalists and commentators on cable television and the Web. Indeed, it’s only now, during this remarkable campaign cycle, that we’re getting a definitive view of how radically and quickly the media ecology has changed during the last decade. For the first time, bloggers and cable-news chatterers—that is, people delivering more opinions than fresh facts—are as important to our perceptions of a presidential election as what network anchors and traditional reporters say and write. This is the first true 21st-century election.
We are lying in the bed we made in the last decade of the last century, when commentariat and punditocracy were coined. In 1992, Eric Alterman published Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics, in which he reckoned that the punditocracy consisted almost entirely of daily-newspaper and weekly-magazine writers, a few of whom very occasionally appeared on TV. Rush Limbaugh wasn’t even mentioned in the book. CNN had made its bones the year before by covering the Gulf War the old-fashioned way, with pictures and straight reporting. The audience for the networks’ evening-news shows was increasing. There were no blogs, no nytimes.com, no Google News. Pretty much the only deliberate humor out of the 1992 commentariat came from three men in their sixties—Russell Baker, William Safire, and Art Buchwald.
But then everything changed. Russert—a former Democratic operative who had never been a reporter—reinvigorated Meet the Press. Limbaugh and the rest of conservative talk radio took off. The Web was born, and Maureen Dowd parlayed her pioneeringly snarky political reporting for the Times into an op-ed column. In 1996, Fox News (and MSNBC) started up, the year after that the Drudge Report went online, and in 1999, Jon Stewart became host of The Daily Show.
Until the mid-nineties, the pages and airtime available for reporting and explaining the news were scarce and precious, and middle-of-the-road high sobriety was the default mode for American journalism; to devote more than a tiny fraction of one’s mass-media platform to explicit opinion-mongering or mischief-making was literally unthinkable. But after cable TV and the Internet mooted that scarcity, attitude-laden takes on the news were permitted to propagate madly. The blithe post–Cold War unseriousness of the nineties helped as well. By the time of the 9/11 attacks, as The Daily Show had just started to achieve serious cultural traction and Fox News was about to overtake CNN in the ratings, the new paradigm had become unstoppable. Today, the strictly humorless big-time pundits—Paul Krugman, Charles Krauthammer—are the outliers. And so, perversely, thanks to modern technology, America has returned to its nineteenth-century roots: political discourse as entertainment, and almost everybody, from know-it-alls to wiseacres, mouthing off around the cracker barrel.
The commentariat has never been larger. But for all the new pundits, my hunch is that it possesses no more aggregate power than it did in the past. Instead, the same pie has been cut into smaller slices, with many more people scrambling to claim their little piece of visibility and influence. It’s a version of Warhol’s twisted insight, twisted a little more: In today’s commentariat, everyone is famous not for fifteen minutes but across fifteen micrometers of the bit of the celebrity bandwidth reserved for journalists.
Which amps up the musical-chairs madness, the jostling among columnists, bloggers, commentators, interviewers, anchors, and reporters to be seen and heard amid the glut. Andrew Sullivan recently and typically blogged twenty times in one day—on a Saturday. Producers at the cable-news and Sunday-morning shows all have anecdotes about the hypereagerness—the sometimes pathetic desperation—of pundits to get on the air. What was Network’s over-the-top premise in 1976 is now real life, but with a whole squad of famous, mad-as-hell would-be truth-tellers in suits and ties getting good ratings.
What’s more, opinion-mongering of all kinds has made its way deep into the news media. Especially in political coverage, the tail of commentary has started wagging the dog of reporting. Among the media figures listed in Alterman’s index in 1992, three-quarters mainly affected traditional journalistic disinterestedness and made some effort to avoid expressing their own opinions. Among a comparable roster today, the fractions would be reversed.
Tim Russert’s death was a clarifying moment in this ongoing transformation, because we realized, if only half-consciously, we’d lost a key evolutionary link between the old and the new, between poker-faced “objectivity” (of the Walter Cronkite as well as the Ted Baxter kinds) and unabashed POV and commentary. He was equally tough on Democrats and Republicans, and maintained an air of probity and dignity, but his good-humored regular guy–ness shone through, he could call a spade a spade, mostly stuck to facts, and almost never adopted that pose of phony broadcaster gravitas that we see parodied on Comedy Central every night. Moreover, Russert’s influence increased tremendously during the last couple of years as a result of his appearing on MSNBC on election nights: Surrounded by the new-style gang of smirking, eye-rolling, jabbering commentator-newsmen—that is, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews—he came across as the responsible adult whose words had real authority.
And so on the night of May 6, after Barack Obama won the North Carolina primary, Russert’s pronouncement on MSNBC—“We now know who the Democratic nominee is gonna be, and no one’s gonna dispute it”—was like an umpire’s call at the end of a seventeen-inning game. It was an opinion, yes, but empirically inarguable and delivered by one of the commentariat’s remaining honest brokers. Because it was he who said it when and how he said it, it instantly became the operative truth. That is power. It reminded me of the moment when Cronkite said on The CBS Evening News that “it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” A paragon of TV-news credibility changes history with one on-air assertion and proves his authority by doing so—but the contexts were wildly, tellingly different: In 1968, TV newspeople almost never delivered opinions, while in 2008, they do so constantly.
Since the old bright lines have been moved or erased, both makers and consumers of news media are now fumbling around with the new M.O., making up the rules as they go along. For instance, journalists’ extemporaneous forays into edgy infotainment are regularly getting them into trouble. Like when MSNBC’s David Shuster suggested that Chelsea Clinton was “being pimped out” by her mother’s campaign, and when Fox News commentator Liz Trotta, a former NBC News correspondent, called Clinton’s RFK-was-assassinated-in-June remark “a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama, uh, Obama. Well, both, if we could.”
But the flood tide of opinion and pointedness creates subtler awkwardness and more systematic confusion as well. People need to update their working definition of bias. I get e-mails all the time from readers complaining that I’m “biased,” even though my columns are all about presenting my opinionated take on the world; that’s the gig. Instead of merely disagreeing with me, aggrieved readers apparently feel more righteous if they can accuse me of violating some higher, universal (but irrelevant) standard of journalistic objectivity.
A few weeks ago, the Times’ ombudsman addressed readers’ complaints about Maureen Dowd’s treatment of Hillary Clinton during the campaign—and, absurdly, agreed with the complainers that “by assailing Clinton in gender-heavy terms in column after column, [she] went over the top this election season.” And thus as ostensibly straighter journalists become more explicitly opinionated, blue-chip commentators like Dowd are being held to something more like a straight-news standard—some vague notion of “appropriateness” impossible to codify, but, well, an ombudsman knows it when he sees it.
There are some truly unsettling and even dangerous instances of the hybridization of news and advocacy. CNN still professes to be all about old-fashioned down-the-middle reporting—“The Most Trusted Name in News.” So the fact that its most anchormanly anchor, Lou Dobbs, has totally polemicized the channel’s main seven o’clock evening-news hour seems beyond the pale.
But awkwardness and uncertainty about standards are nowhere more apparent than at NBC. MSNBC has become, more or less, the Fox News of the left, with Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan as the house conservatives, the (superior) equivalents of the token liberals on Fox. Yet at the same time, NBC News’ political coverage has migrated wholesale to MSNBC. So the sober network-news approach and practitioners (Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams) now mingle uneasily on the air with the looser, zanier performers and protocols of cable news. Every weeknight, Olbermann attacks the Bush administration and conservatives in the harshest terms—but then, as co-anchor of the official MSNBC/NBC News election coverage, he is obliged, Eddie Haskellishly, to play it straight. MSNBC election nights are like watching Henry V and As You Like It performed on the same stage at the same time.
Yet as odd as this can sometimes be, it’s an improvement over Fox News. Fox was born in pursuit of a particular ideological agenda. MSNBC is simply trying to make people watch, and happened to get there by letting Matthews be Matthews and Olbermann be Olbermann, and occasionally bringing in the old-school network eminences. It’s easier to imagine The O’Reilly Factor on MSNBC than Countdown on Fox. When liberals and conservatives argue with each other on MSNBC, it tends to be more like a friendly debate at a dinner party, as opposed to Fox’s WWF version of left-right discourse. If CNN in the eighties was cable-news political coverage 1.0, and Fox was 2.0, then something like version 3.0 is fitfully emerging on MSNBC.
The fact that MSNBC and CNN are now closing the gap with Fox in the ratings is due, I think, to the larger cyclical trend toward purplish post-partisanship, the same winds that filled the sails of McCain and Obama. As the 30-year-long run of party-line Republican hegemony winds down, it’s now the freethinking members of the conservative commentariat—Buchanan, Scarborough, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan—who are ascendant, making the talking-points ideologues like Limbaugh, Bill Kristol, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Glenn Beck seem so turn-of-the-century.
The new multiplatform commentariat couldn’t have dreamed up a better election year to optimize its prominence. All the ways in which this race is singular and interesting have created endless opportunities for speculation, gossip, number-crunching, musing, joking, and pontificating. It’s commentator heaven. On the other hand, we’d better enjoy it while it lasts: It may never be this good again.
What’s more, Russert is probably irreplaceable, not unlike Cronkite was. With a few years’ seasoning (and maybe some testosterone injections), NBC News’ refreshingly empirical young political director Chuck Todd could fit the bill. But I think it’s just as likely that the job itself—American political media’s alpha dog—will simply cease to exist. Or be redefined and go by default to Jon Stewart. As a result of more and more journalists’ making names for themselves by morphing into commentators, the pool of candidates to become the clued-in voice of authority, equally trusted by people on the left and right, is shrinking. By growing so loud and large and opinionated, the commentariat may be rendering itself incapable of having a king.