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.