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.