Part 3—Cokie’s hunt for cash: In 1988, Richard M. Cohen offered a warning about the values, and the practices, emerging within TV news.
At the time, Cohen was 40 years old. Two years earlier, a senior at Yale pretty much beat him to it.
For all previous posts in this series, click here.
In the pages of The New Republic, Jacob Weisberg—then twenty years old—warned about the rise of mammon within the nation’s print press. He even coined a new term, “buckrakers,” burlesquing what journalists had become in their pursuit of cold cash.
The bright young kid was a firebrand then. By now, things have changed.
Since 1996, Weisberg has been drawing his paycheck from Bill Gates, who has pretty much ruined everything over the past thirty years.
In 2003, Weisberg somehow authored Robert Rubin’s memoir, In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington.
Did that kid get caught in a culture which ate his early values? In December, Weisberg’s wife will be co-hosting a three-day event which bears this name: The New York Times International Luxury Conference. (Actual name! Click here.) Meanwhile, two of the couple’s homes have been featured in photo spreads!
We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. But those photo spreads may have been conducted in The Houses of Journalist County!
That county’s a nice place to visit, a great place to live. But very little journalism is likely to emerge from that realm, a point that bright young kid from Yale has helped us see through the years.
We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to the warnings which were emerging from Journalist County.
Weisberg issued his prescient warning in 1986. Two years later, Cohen described where TV news was headed. He spoke to Howard Kurtz:
CBS executives "believe you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum…The currency of the realm ceases to be journalism...It's sort of a marketing mentality that takes over what gets on the air.”
“They're left with a huge game of pretend.”
So Cohen said in 1988. At present, we see that game of pretend being played every night.
In 1996, James Fallows issued another warning, the third in our current list. At the time, Fallows was Washington editor of The Atlantic. He authored a book which bore this unpleasant title:
Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy
Could James Fallows say that? The book provoked a fair amount of pushback from the mainstream press. The largest clatter concerned Chapter 4, “The Gravy Train,” where Fallows even dared to complain about the buck-raking of Cokie Roberts.
A bit of background is needed:
As far as we know, everyone agrees that Weisberg coined the term “buckraker.” In 1995, Michael Kinsley wrote a piece in The New Republic confessing to the sin.
Kinsley didn’t buy Weisberg’s premise. His confession started like this. We can't find a link:
KINSLEY (5/1/95): Confessions of a BuckrakerKinsley rejected the controversy. He went on to say that it’s less problematic when journalists, as opposed to pols, accept sacks of corporate cash.
After years of resisting temptation, I have succumbed to the lecture circuit. What I do mostly is not speeches but staged debates with some conservative journalist or politician. Since the audiences are generally composed of affluent businessmen, my role is like that of the team that gets to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. But I do it because it pays well, because it's fun to fly around the country and stay in hotels, and because even a politically unsympathetic audience can provide a cheap ego boost.
These are hardly noble reasons. But are they corrupt? Some journalists, and a few gleeful outsiders, think so. Journalistic ethics cops have been very hard on politicians who accept honoraria and campaign contributions from groups with interests before the government. Is it any different when journalists accept handsome fees for addressing conventions, trade associations and so on? The paid lecture circuit is an American tradition, and journalists have always participated—until recently, without controversy. But it has become far more lucrative, and thus more controversial, in recent years.
That isn’t necessarily wrong. This was one of his reasons:
KINSLEY: [P]oliticians run the government. They have real power over people's lives and money. Journalists have no power except the power of words. Now, I wouldn't be in journalism if I thought that the power of words was inconsequential. A Sam Donaldson may well have more influence over the course of events in Washington than some obscure member of Congress. But words only have power to the extent they are persuasive, and abuses of the power of words are, to some extent, self-limiting. Faulty facts or fatuous reasoning can be countered.Starting in 1999, Kinsley’s colleagues would stage a two-year war in which their recitation of Standard Group Scripts would show the world 1) how much power they actually had when they worked as a group and 2) how little Kinsley understood, or was willing to describe, the drift of the mid-90s press.
(By 1999, Kinsley was in Seattle, where he was creating Slate and drawing his pay from Bill Gates! Basically, Gates has paid for everything over the past thirty years.)
Whatever! In 1996, Fallows offered another warning from inside Journalist County. He didn’t credit Weisberg, whose arguments he largely recycled.
We’ll let Richard Harwood summarize Fallows' warning through his favorable review of the book in the Washington Post.
What Weisberg had shouted from his Yale dorm, Fallows had shouted again. As he started his review, Harwood offered a long quotation presenting that same old premise:
HARWOOD (1/8/96): Press critics have some of the characteristics of amateur dove hunters. We tend to be scattershots, making a lot of noise while rarely bagging any game.Essentially, that was what Weisberg had said. As Harwood continued, this twice-told tale only got more unpleasant:
James Fallows, author and magazine essayist, may be an exception. He has produced a book about journalism that seems to me well-aimed. It has a long title—"Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy." Its premise is uncomplicated:
"As journalism has become more star-oriented, individual journalists have gained the potential to command power, riches, and prestige that few of their predecessors could have hoped for. Yet this new personal success involves a terrible bargain. The more prominent today's star journalists become, the more they are forced to give up the essence of real journalism, which is the search for information of use to the public. The effects of this trade-off are greatest at the top of the occupational pyramid, which is why the consequences are so destructive. The best-known and best-paid people in journalism now set an example that erodes the quality of the news we receive and threatens journalism's claim on public respect."
HARWOOD (continuing directly); The best-known and best-paid people in journalism are, of course, employed by the television networks. They have seven-figure incomes and are as familiar to the American masses as our presidents, professional athletes and entertainers. Their jobs provide them with neither the time nor the opportunity to do the research, reading and reporting required to make sense of the news—to give it meaning and place it in perspective. And because of the perpetual race for ratings, they are often under pressure to entertain rather than inform.Weisberg and Cohen had said these things in their earlier warnings. Now, Fallows was making these unpleasant statements in book form—in a book he’d written from a hallowed precinct of Journalist County.
So the news is often trivialized and sensationalized. The "boring" information important to the public often is not recognized or is sacrificed to commercial imperatives...
Of greater significance, in Fallows's view, is the influence television has had on many of our leading newspaper and magazine journalists—people of great talent and skill. They are not dumb. They know about the big money associated with television and, because they are human and normally acquisitive, they have found a way to get it. The golden goose is the television talk show, a form of news/entertainment that has grown enormously in the past 15 years or so. There are now dozens of programs—both local and national—modeled after such productions as "Meet the Press," "The McLaughlin Group," "Crossfire" and so on.
On the whole, Harwood agreed with the things Fallows said. As his review continued, he updated the money amounts from Weisberg’s earlier warning.
For ourselves, we prefer the word “buffoonism” when discussing the work of our pundit clowns. That said, was James Fallows—was Richard Harwood—permitted to say these things?
HARWOOD: [T]here is no shortage of journalists eager to perform on these programs, which to differing degrees combine moments of intelligent commentary with various forms of buffoonery. Whatever the quality of the productions, they give writers a degree of celebrity and opportunities to reap the substantial rewards found on the lecture circuit.We’ll forgive Harwood for pretending that these pundits were dissipating their “great talents.” But there it was—another warning from inside Journalist County!
Thousands of colleges, universities, trade associations, lobbying groups, fraternal and civic organizations are eager to enliven their conventions, lecture series, seminars and annual meetings with the presence of a "celebrity" and are willing to pay very well for the service rendered. It is usually a 30- or 40-minute all-purpose speech suitable for any gathering, followed by a half-hour of Q & A. Ted Koppel was getting $50,000 a gig before he quit the circuit. Cokie Roberts pulls down as much as $35,000. Fees of $5,000 to $20,000 are commonplace...
There are costs involved in all this. Journalists who work the talk-show, lecture and book circuits are somewhat like the TV anchors who have little or no time for the hard work of reporting that underlies all good journalism. Their great talents are dissipated by the quest for money. Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Post, has noted this phenomenon: "They [a number of prominent writers] are no longer as good in print as they would have been if they didn't have this distraction and couldn't get all this money for saying the first thing that comes into their heads without having to think hard."
In some ways, the numbers there remain quaint. Earlier this summer, the Washington Post staged a major jihad about the fact that Hillary Clinton is now paid $200,000 for some speeches, as is true for other major stars.
The numbers were smaller in Fallows’ book, but they produced a kerfuffle. For some reason, Fallows’ portrait of Cokie Roberts scorching the Junior League for 35 grand seemed to provoke more reaction than the news that Ted Koppel had been hauling in 50 K per speech.
Harwood thought Fallows’ aim was true; many other journalists didn’t. Once again, it isn’t clear that any of this has to matter.
In theory, a person can haul a ton of cash and still produce excellent journalism, but that is just the theory. In practice, “various forms of buffoonery” were already evident on our burgeoning pundit shows. And things would get much worse.
Weisberg’s warning was the first of the three we’ve recalled. Ten years later, Fallows completed the hat trick.
Things went into the trash can from there. So whatever happened to Weisberg?
Coming tomorrow: On a downhill slope
For extra credit only: In October 1996, Frontline aired a program built around Fallows’ book.
The program bore an unpleasant title: Why America Hates the Press: An inside look at America’s elite press corps.
Did America really hate the press? That wasn’t clear from Fallows’ book or from the PBS program. But a voluminous web site still exists, with interviews and a full transcript.
The worst was yet to come! Just click to see how the matter looked to Frontline at that point.