The Way It Was Under Walter Cronkite: We Were Starved For Media

“And that’s the way it is,” intoned Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America,” at the end of each news broadcast. It seems like a different world, when a mere three television networks, the New York Times, Washington Post, and a few other major papers dominated public discourse. Yet, we still don’t seem to be over the nostalgia. As the story goes, after the end of World War II and before the dawn of the Internet, political debates were conducted with relative political comity, in stark contrast to our current era of increasing polarization.

Those bygone days weren’t as civil as we like to remember. In fact, the biggest difference is how information-starved were back then. Yet, the richness of our modern media landscape hasn’t dissuaded the Federal Communications Commission from trying to “fix” America’s media, through backdoor attempts to influence the content and delivery of the news.

Which brings us to this week’s key question: Does the media need to be “fixed,” and if so, how? That is no small matter. In dueling white papers, the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation offer competing perspectives. And I’m lucky to host them both this week on RealClear Radio Hour.

In the left corner are Brookings Vice President for Governance Darrell West and Digital Media Coordinator Beth Stone. In a new report, “Nudging news producers and consumers toward more thoughtful, less polarized discourse,” they argue for measures to improve the quality of news coverage to help overcome the sharp polarization of the political process.

They also call on search engines to rank findings not only by popularity but also by “quality,” to elevate in-depth coverage of significant issues while minimizing the rankings of less reputable sources.

Finally, they recommend that investigative journalists be endowed with perpetual financing, much like tenured professors, to shield them from commercial pressures, encouraging them to partner with universities and non-profits.

West and Stone never define who should be the arbiters of quality, reputation, thoughtfulness, diversity, credibility, or depth, a lofty post once held by … the big three TV networks and the editorial boards of the New York Times, Washington Post, et al. What they do make clear is that they are not satisfied with leaving these judgments to the unfettered market. Their reasoning is that, while there is a wider diversity of viewpoints available today than ever before, consumers are not doing a good job availing themselves of it. Hence, both consumers and search engines need to be “nudged” by experts, presumably like the people at the Brookings Institution.

“Foul!” cries Mike Gonzalez, Vice President of Communications at the Heritage Foundation, from right corner. In his retort, “The New Contras: Understanding The Left’s Grip On Media,” he argues that while the left still controls Hollywood and academia, the liberal arbiters of goodness still can’t get over their loss of control over news media, and are fighting to get it back. Gonzalez argues that the Brookings recommendations, while claiming to give voice to the usual list of “marginalized communities,” are actually designed to stifle ideological diversity.

The unspoken goal, he says, is to suppress conservative voices whose pioneering of talk radio and the blogosphere opened up channels that were just not available in the “good old days.” In fact, Gonzalez points out, it was precisely the comity and cooperation between the dominant political parties and the major media that led to a ballooning of the federal government, with nary a criticism from … the three major networks, theNew York Times, Washington Post, et al.

Who’s right? Decide for yourself, by tuning into the RealClear Radio Hour this Saturday at 10am and 6pm on Bloomberg Boston (also downloadable via podcast), where I dig deeper into the issue in back-to-back interviews with both West and Gonzalez.

So, gentlemen, go to your corners. Time for round one!