Why the News Media Sucks 2: Trust

Chapter 1 – The Greatest Generation

Glenn Greenwald, continuing his examination of the modern media, posted a summary today of a conversation he had with ABC News Senior VP (of “Corporate Communications”, for which read: PR flack) Jeffrey Schneider. On Tuesday, Greenwald criticized the ABC report on Iran’s supposed acceleration of it nuclear program and the startling claim that they could have an atomic bomb “by 2009” because it never named a source or explained why it didn’t. Schneider responded:

Schneider, though somewhat combative at times, was perfectly rational and civil, but the crux of his defense was this: we are ABC News, the award-winning and respected news network of Peter Jennings, and we can therefore be trusted when we say that these sources are credible. That was the premise on which many Americans previously operated, but it isn’t any more….


Journalists find any criticisms based on that lack of trust to be “outrageous,” because they think they’ve done nothing to deserve it. They see themselves as trustworthy and solid professionals with a record that merits great respect and faith. After all, they win Peabody Awards. Their failure to recognize just how fundamentally broken their profession has become — and how little faith so many people have in it — explains, more than anything else, why they are not really changing how they operate. It also explains why they are incapable of understanding criticisms of this sort as anything other than outrageous (or “partisan-motivated”) slander.

(emphasis in the original)

The trust issue is a good place to start because in order to understand how touchy modern journalists are about it, you have to understand how different – and how recent – not being trusted is in media news history.

The Beginning

The first public use of radio – before this it had been used primarily for ocean navigation by the US Navy and private shipping companies and transmitted only Morse Code – was, perhaps not surprisingly, to report on a war.

[I]n early 1904, London Times war correspondent Captain Lionel James arranged to rush two American DeForest transmitters to China, in order to report on a developing conflict between Japan and Russia. A land station was established at Wei-hai-Wei on the Chinese coast, with the second transmitter placed aboard a ship, which allowed James to transmit daily updates directly from the war zone.

Not that there were a lot of people listening but the mold had been made. The future of the new technology was to be the transmission of information – news. As one writer phrased it, “All the nations of the earth would be put upon terms of intimacy and men would be stunned by the tremendous volume of news and information that would ceaselessly pour in upon them.”

Lovely thought but, of course, once radio became a viable, profitable entity, corporate America took over and entertainment became its major focus. The first commercial broadcast took place when the neophyte RCA debuted on July 2, 1921, with a boxing match. It was to be typical of their priorities from then on.

The Great Depression

News on the radio was largely eclipsed during the 30’s by a hunger for escapist entertainment. Things were bad all over but radio sets were so cheap that even people with only minimal employment could afford them thanks to a new financing system called “time payments”. You could have a radio in your home for as little as a dime a week, and almost everybody had one. But not to listen to the news. Nobody wanted to know exactly how bad things were.

The industry thoughtfully didn’t overburden them with knowledge, instead stuffing their broadcast hours with comedies and “dramas”. I put quotations around that because most of them weren’t what we’d call dramas today. They were soap operas (“The Romance of Helen Trent” or “Our Gal Sunday”), westerns, adolescent adventure stories like “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy”, and mysteries (“The Shadow”, “The Whistler”). The closest radio during the Depression got to news commentary was Will Rogers’ show. “I don’t belong to any organized party. I’m a Democrat.” His “Somebody had a plan” broadcast was a classic of political satire. A snippet:

Somebody had a plan to plow under every third acre of wheat but then a big wind came along and now nobody can find the other two.

Somebody had a plan to teach hogs birth control and now it’s a habit with ’em.

Somebody had a plan to redistribute the wealth. Well, there’s a lot of people with a lot more money than me that ought to be sharing some of their wealth with me but they can’t hardly see it my way. Then there’s a lot of people with less money than me who think I ought to be sharing it with them, but I can’t hardly see it their way neither. That is, even if I can see it, I’m not doin’ it.

During the 20’s, radio news had enjoyed a short vogue because Prohibition had spawned organized crime and there were lots of juicy murders, car chases, and arrests of famous gangland figures to report. By the time Prohibition ended, though, the Depression was on for real and the public’s taste for news waned. Sharply. Most news programs, such as they were, were gradually replaced by what later came to be the standard format: 5 mins of headlines on the hour.

Two things changed that set-up. The first was the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937.

A radio reporter named Herbert Morrison was sent to cover the landing of the giant zeppelin in Lakehurst, NJ by his station, WLS in Chicago. He was standing on the field with an open mic describing its approach when the ship exploded right in front of him (video, audio of part of Morrison’s broadcast – requires Real Player). His reaction – “O, the Humanity!” – live, as it happened, changed radio news forever, both its focus and its image.

Until then, on-the-spot broadcasts were special events (for instance, coverage of the verdict in the Scopes trial in 1925 was one of the first), not exactly rare but far from everyday occurrences. Live broadcasts were most often music shows from various well-known venues – bands playing at famous hotels or night clubs. After the Hindenburg, station managers became aware of the attraction of immediacy to a news audience. Being there the moment something was happening was a much more powerful draw than lame, after-the-fact reporting hours – or days – later.

It’s important to remember in the context we’re discussing that what changed their minds was Morrison’s open, on-air emotionalism. Live events had been covered before (the Lindburg baby trial, the Kentucky mine collapse) but Morrison’s raw, quivering voice (at one point, in tears, Morrison can’t take any more and leaves the scene for a time to get himself together) brought home the potential of live coverage in a way nothing else could.

The other change-maker was the Second World War.

The Greatest Generation

World War II made news reporting what it was to be for the next 40+ years. People were hungry for news – accurate news – about the war. They had brothers, sons, husbands in harm’s way and they wanted to know what was going on. Within the parameters of military security (nobody gave away troop movements before they happened, for instance), the war-time reporters told them what they could. Nobody asked them to sugarcoat it, and they didn’t. Failures were reported as honestly as successes. Edward R Murrow became famous for his reporting on the constant bombing of London (“On at least one occasion, he broadcast from the roof of a building during a raid to report an eye witness account of what Britain was enduring.”) and the air war in the skies above. No military official or politician ever asked him to tone it down.

The intense credibility wartime journalists earned with the public by their fearless reporting became the hallmark of the American press for decades after the war was over. Even at the height of the Viet Nam war when Walter Cronkite was ladling out bad news about the Tet offensive and de-bunking Gen Westmoreland’s inflated VC body counts, when there were police riots that turned peaceful demonstrations into war zones, when the hippie/freak explosion was generating venomous hatred on the part of its elders and “the establishment”, the media’s reporting was trusted. People believed what they saw on their tv sets and what the news anchors on those screens told them.

More than anything else, perhaps, it was that trust that finally broke the back of the Vietnam War in America. The evidence presented by the Greatest Generation journalists gradually overwhelmed the Roger Ailes-inspired propaganda of the Nixon Administration. It didn’t gibe with what they saw and heard for themselves, and slowly they began to turn – away from McNamara’s “We have to fight them there or else we’ll be fighting them on the streets of Santa Monica” rationale, away from Bundy’s Domino Theory, away from Nixon’s “victory” rhetoric. They saw for themselves – with the help of the media – that Viet Nam was a civil war, not a proxy war against China or the Soviet Union, and that US troops were doing most of the fighting, not the South Vietnamese. This at a time when the first Nixon Administration was still insisting that American troops were only aiding the native army.

The 60’s media reported that lie and many others. People hated what they were being told but they believed it, and they believed it because they believed in the people who were saying it. They had reason to, and not just because of WW II.

After 30 years of national turmoil – Prohibition and gangsters in the 20’s, the Stock Market Crash and subsequent Depression when families fell apart and men rode the rails looking for work in the 30’s, a world-wide war in the 40’s – the Greatest generation was looking for peace and quiet, some time to rest, some time to recoup, some time to remember why they’d done it all.

And so came the repressive 50’s when nobody wanted to hear any more bad news, when everybody wanted to concentrate on having a decent job, buying a decent house, raising a loving family, and living in a hunger-free, war-free world for a change. They ignored the “race question” even when the bus boycott began and the marches started, they ignored the tensions in Europe, and they reveled in the lightning-like speed and depth of the exploding middle-class: suburbs sprouting up everywhere, an economy that was growing by leaps-and-bounds, and news shows that highlighted business and domestic issues on which no one died on the street or in combat. It wasn’t Heaven exactly, but it would do until the real thing came along.

Yet the media went right on telling them, whether they wanted to hear it or not. They might distance themselves, look at Selma as if it were in some other country unconnected to them or their lives, but they all watched the nightly news and they all believed what they heard even when they didn’t much like it.

Which was the reason Edward R Murrow, the founder and godfather of post-war journalism, could take Joe McCarthy down in 1954 and give Joseph Welch the chance to finish him. Murrow went against overwhelming popular sentiment when he attacked McCarthy and his methods – the only non-domestic issue the Greatest Generation cared about in the post-war era was the threat that Communist China and/or the Soviet Union would start another war, maybe an atomic war – but he did it anyway and set in stone the fundamental precept of the new media: The people deserve the truth even when they don’t want to hear it. Tell the truth or get out of the business.

It wasn’t easy, and some lost their careers, but because of Murrow, journalism as a whole had a cedibility with the Greatest Generation that hung on for 40 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s