Viewers and critics who lament the sorry state of broadcast news in the United States often blame a dark and monolithic monster: the corporations that have turned broadcast journalism into a nightly cesspool of panic, exhibitionism and trivia. The once-glorious anchor desk, they charge, is now a stage upon which fear-mongering meets "Fear Factor," with ferocious weather footage added in. Broadcasters retort that the celebrity chat, armchair lawyering and partisan ranting that have seeped into American newscasts are precisely what the public has ordered up. And they have the ratings to prove it. Don't like cable news? Well, it's pledge week once again at your local PBS or NPR affiliate.
These mutual recriminations haunt three recent books about broadcast media and those who have shaped it. In the manner of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, readers can see the ghosts of the news industry past and present in these works. Yet none of them offers any reassuring or practical vision of the future.
In Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism (Wiley, $19.95), former NPR "Morning Edition" anchor Bob Edwards offers a succinct introduction to the fabled newscaster's career. In fact, at times it is too succinct: The book is full of narrative hiccups and leaps forward in staccato bursts of concision, pausing only to linger over a verbatim transcription of a momentous radio broadcast.
Though Edwards ticks off Murrow's flaws (chain smoking, moodiness) with elan, the odor of hagiography lingers heavily over his recounting of Murrow's inventions and innovations in radio and television journalism. (For instance, the introduction notes that "Murrow lived by a code too rigid for mere humans to meet.") But to what end? As it turns out, the fragrant incense of Edwards's tribute is designed to do what any account of a saint's life is meant to do: instruct the faithful and chide sinners. When Edwards's breakneck scamper through the early days of broadcast journalism at last plunges the reader into the present, the author finally reveals the moral of his tale: Murrow would suffocate in today's media. Good journalism is bad for business and the "bean counters."
And that's not all. The public taste also has been debased too badly for any Murrow to survive. "People no longer tune in to a program," writes Edwards, "for a detached assessment of political matters; they tune in to have their own biases affirmed. A Murrow program inviting an audience to think might not fare well today." Edwards's prognosis for the future is unremittingly grim: "If there's a Murrow now among young journalists, he or she will probably leave the business before arriving at a position that gets our attention."
Run, Rabbit, Run
Where Edwards damns both industry and audience for the precipitous decline in broadcast journalism's standards, media columnist Ken Auletta uses Media Man: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire (Atlas, $22.95) to tell a contemporary cautionary tale about the entrepreneur who founded CNN, the world's first 24-hour television news channel.
An updated version of Auletta's 2001 National Magazine Award-winning profile in the New Yorker, Media Man glides breezily through Turner's eventful life, plucking out vivid details and amusing anecdotes to build a nuanced and engaging portrait of an immensely complicated man. Yet the book hits its highest notes in depicting how a mercurial cable mogul revolutionized the news industry -- and then watched as the manic boom-and-bust cycle of the 1990s swallowed up and regurgitated his prize innovation.
Auletta titles one chapter of his book "Hubris," and there is no doubt that Turner played a large role in his own eventual downfall. But Auletta revels in depicting the relentless Darwinism of the glamorous business of media and portraying his subject as its inevitable victim. Turner is a "rabbit" and those around him "wolves" and "foxes." Mergers and synergy are depicted simply and starkly as the games of hunt-or-be-hunted and eat-or-be-eaten.
Readers may find more detailed analyses of the merger of AOL and Time Warner than Auletta's slim volume, but they will find none more entertaining, straightforward or comprehensible. In part, this is a direct result of choosing to center the tale on Turner's career. Though Auletta opts to use Turner's biography as a metaphor for the media industry, he eschews Edwards's tactic of using his subject as rod and rule. In Media Man, Turner is human, all too human. The result is that the reader cares about what happens to this particular rabbit.
Auletta's vivid and economical telling of Turner's story is precisely the sort of book that David T. Z. Mindich, a former CNN assignment editor turned media-studies professor, might recommend to lure younger Americans to rediscover the relevance of broadcast journalism. In Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News (Oxford Univ., $25), Mindich assaults the reader with analysis and anecdote to explain why younger Americans have abandoned the informational portion of their civic engagement.
Mindich's slim book persuasively diagnoses a serious problem. No significant factor in this sad slide toward studied ignorance among post-Baby Boomers -- from trends explicated in contemporary media and cultural studies to the vapidity and violence of today's broadcast journalism -- is left untouched. But the book's conclusion -- entitled "How to Tune Back In" -- offers unworkable solutions to this media malaise that range from magically transforming the nation's education and political systems to hapless echoes of the shopworn "take back" mantras employed in mass street demonstrations.
The decline in the quality of news broadcasts in America -- and the corporate consolidation of the news media -- did not happen overnight. Reversing both trends will require a slow and steady effort. The attempts of churches and media activists to challenge the licenses of stations that refuse to follow even the threadbare regulations that currently exist for children's programming are one practical way to start. If the fire and brimstone, the cautionary tale and the cogent analysis presented by these three books accomplish anything, it will be to provide some much-needed intellectual fuel and simple inspiration for these more practical grassroots efforts. *
Richard Byrne has written media-criticism columns for Washington City Paper, the Riverfront Times and St. Louis Magazine.