Watching Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and Tim Russert this past Sunday wasn't quite like seeing dinosaurs asking each other what's happened to all the tasty fronds, but the year-ending edition of NBC's "Meet the Press" offered an excellent glimpse at why the elite mainstream media as we know it is facing extinction.
No doubt intended as a grand treat for the viewing audience, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert invited NBC's Tom Brokaw and ABC's Ted Koppel to ladle out some observations from their deep wells of wisdom for all of the world to imbibe.
These three giants of television journalism tut-tutted about one government failure after another, from the Katrina response to the government's inability to provide health care for everybody to our dismayingly low taxes. Brokaw agreed with Koppel, Koppel agreed with Brokaw. Russert nodded as one newsman repeated what the other one just said.
For example, regarding the Hurricane Katrina episode - in which the media collectively broke all chains of objectivity in order to preen with outrage over the plight of the downtrodden - Brokaw asserted "there were no gray areas in Katrina." By this he meant the media was 100 percent right for portraying the federal government as 100 percent wrong. This elicited nods all around. Brokaw even quoted Aaron Broussard, the Jefferson Parish president who openly wept on "Meet The Press" about the tardy federal response: "They didn't come. They promised they would come and they didn't come."
Alas, Brokaw left out the fact that Broussard had to be invited back on the program to clarify various untruths (aka "lies") in his original version of events. Russert let this fact fall by the wayside in this no-gray zone. And on and on it went.
Now, it's fair to say that Brokaw, Koppel and Russert are three of the very best journalists the elite mainstream media have ever produced. Respective flaws notwithstanding, they are generally respected by viewers of various ideological outlooks for being tough and serious. Indeed, one of the most overlooked reasons for Russert's success at "Meet the Press" is that conservative viewers respect him enough to tune in. (Right-leaning eyeballs provide television ratings points too, you know.)
But in the same way the rules tend to break down when cops are asked to investigate other cops, elite journalists see themselves as above the standards they apply to everyone else. So while Russert wouldn't devote a whole show to nothing but softball questions for a politician or CEO, he turns into Larry King on Prozac when interviewing his colleagues.
A thick cloud of nostalgia hung over the set. Why couldn't politicians trust journalists like in the good old days? Why must we have a sound-bite political culture? Why don't politicians follow the agenda set by media muckety-mucks?
Such nostalgia is understandable given the culture these men grew up in. In the post-World War II era, television journalism was almost a quasi-governmental institution. There were only three networks, and their news broadcasts set the national debate and drew the nation together in a way that had never happened before. Eventually, the establishment felt entitled to this arrangement. They forgot that this system was the unintended offspring of WWII and the Cold War and the advent of television. Before TV, American journalism was more boisterous and less revered.
Today's technological glitz notwithstanding, we are returning to the norm, and the guild-mentality consensus we've "enjoyed" this last half-century is evaporating and will likely never return.
When asked to name an underreported story in '05, Brokaw suggested the downsizing of General Motors. Well, GM is a good illustration of what's happening to the elite media. One of the main reasons GM is in such trouble is that it has never won the allegiance of post-WWII consumers. The "greatest generation," as Brokaw calls them, loved their Oldsmobiles, and they've been buying GM cars for 60 years. But that generation is dying, and GM's antiquated products (and pensions) are killing it in a more competitive environment in which young consumers couldn't care less about Oldsmobile.
Young people feel the same way about those evening news broadcasts. Fewer than 10 percent of viewers of the major network news shows are under the age of 34. The average viewer is over 60. Haven't you noticed that all of the ads are for adult diapers, denture cream and Viagra? There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a sign that the old system cannot last.
Meanwhile, the one institution that has been immune to the media's prying eyes is now being scrutinized itself - not by a journalistic priesthood but by bloggers, independent media and consumers. Rather than embrace the new era, which recognizes that the elite media's power qualifies them as worthy of scrutiny, the elite media circle the wagons. As Ted Koppel asked at the end of "Meet the Press," "When are you getting to the tough questions? Come on, Tim."