Part 1—Warned from inside CBS: Does it matter if the biggest stars of the national “press corps” live in The Houses of Journalist County, the magical kingdom we started describing last week?
Does it matter if they’re paid the kinds of salaries people routinely degrade themselves for, in the manner glorious Cummings described?
(Cummings: “Humanity i love you because you would rather black the boots of success than enquire whose soul dangles from his watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both parties and because you unflinchingly applaud all songs containing the words country home and mother when sung at the old howard.”)
Does it matter if they invent silly stories designed to make us the consumers think they’re just like us?
Does it matter if a major news org has such absurdly foppish values that it’s willing to stage a three-day event which bears this wonderfully clownish name: “The New York Times International Luxury Conference?”
Actually yes—these manifestations do matter! In theory, they don’t have to matter. But in practice, they plainly do.
In theory, a person could be paid millions of dollars a year while still performing superlative journalism. Almost surely, this has actually happened somewhere.
But starting about thirty years ago, we the people began to get warnings about the emerging values of Journalist County—in some cases, about TV news orgs which were now being run as profit centers.
In April 1988, one such warning emerged from inside CBS News. For now, we’ll withhold the name of the man who issued the warning.
The 1988 White House campaign was already well under way—and CBS News had just fired the somewhat outspoken senior producer who had been in charge of its campaign coverage. At the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz did a 2200-word report on the firing.
(Aside from Nexis, we can find no link to this report.)
The network said the producer had been fired for cause. Kurtz noted some problems with that account, then quoted the senior producer as he issued a warning.
Just for now, we’re going to skip the senior producer’s name. Here’s part of what he said about the values which were emerging inside Journalist County. Deletions by Kurtz:
KURTZ (4/8/88): Sipping a beer in his Upper West Side brownstone, [Name Withheld] looks back on a career in which he was arrested in Lebanon, shot at in El Salvador and barred from Poland. But all that paled next to the internal strife at CBS, which he says took the fun out of the job.That was just one person’s opinion, of course. One year before, an editorial writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer said one part of this producer’s larger complaint contained a lot of bunk.
The raspy-voiced producer worries that his comments will sound bitter or self-righteous, but he feels too strongly about the direction of television news to edit his remarks very carefully. He says he has turned down other job feelers because he is disillusioned with network journalism.
"Almost everyone I knew [at CBS] really lost their passion for the place," he says. "Now they're left with a huge game of pretend...There's a bunker mentality, a certain grimness that set in.”
[Name Withheld] says that such executives as Stringer, Joyce and former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter "believe you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum, make it glitzy, and it will sell...The currency of the realm ceases to be journalism...It's sort of a marketing mentality that takes over what gets on the air."
That said, this warning was being heard more and more often at that time from within TV news divisions. And how odd! We’d say that senior’s producer’s description almost perfectly captures the values which lurk today inside many of The Houses of Journalist County!
That was just one person’s opinion. But according to that senior producer, these values had begun to emerge in one major section of Journalist County:
Executives wanted to “lower the common denominator” of network news reporting. They wanted to “frame everything in entertainment terms.”
They believed that if you “make it pablum,” it will be more likely to sell. In the process, this senior producer said, CBS News was left “with a huge game of pretend.”
The currency of Journalist County had “ceased to be journalism,” this senior producer told Kurtz. Instead, there was “sort of a marketing mentality that takes over what gets on the air.”
This senior producer was describing the values emerging at CBS News. As we read his warning today, we’re struck by how closely it describes the work we see each night on our cable news channels.
(For the record, we see that kind of work in all three cantons of cable news. Even though we vote the same way she does, and share her views on most major issues, we would include the embarrassing “journalism” we see, night after night, on Rachel Maddow’s progressive sponge bath program.)
“It ceases to be journalism?” Have you watched Maddow’s entertainment-laced extravaganzas lately? On the print side, do you read the embarrassing pablum routinely served at Salon?
The pablum is designed for us liberals. But it’s pablum nonetheless.
Needless to say, there has never been a time when American journalism was perfect. But this week, we’re going to look at some warnings which began to emerge in the 1980s—warnings which concerned the way the news business, and its major stars, were chasing the corporate bottom line and their own individual wealth.
According to those warnings, many of that day’s biggest journalists preferred to “black the boots of success,” rather than “enquire whose soul dangles from his watch-chain.” When you turn on your TV machine tonight, you may observe a similar process, even on the “news channel” most friendly to your point of view.
When you turn on your TV machine, you’re likely to be watching someone who wants to live in The Houses of Journalist County—someone who wants The Salaries of Journalist County. In order to gain that wealth and the corresponding fame, these people may be willing to serve you that county’s finest brand of pablum.
It may be a flavor of pablum you like. But it’s pablum all the same—pablum all the way down.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a warning which emerged from the campus of Yale in 1986—a warning from a college senior who was destined to become a major political journalist.
We think he offered a very strong warning. Today, he lives in The Houses of Journalist County, and we’d say it might possibly show.
As we close today’s post, let’s note a bit of an irony. The CBS producer quoted by Kurtz was Richard M. Cohen, then 40 years of age. Today, he lives in The Houses of Journalist County with his wife of 28 years, Meredith Vieira.
Here’s the irony:
If you read Cohen’s description of the values emerging at CBS News, you’re reading a perfect description of the journalism and post-journalism which have him and his family living in those mighty mansions today.
As of 1988, Vieira was an actual journalist, at least in appearance and theory. She was a correspondent on the CBS magazine show, West 57th Street, where she received several Emmys for doing reports on serious news topics.
A few years later, she made the move to 60 Minutes, which was still, in many respects, a source of actual news.
By now, Vieira has clowned her way through the undercard of American pseudo-journalism. That include five years co-hosting the Today show, whose producers long ago came to believe that “you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum.”
For her service on Today, Vieira was paid $10-12 million per year. As we described last week, she had already made the move to The Houses of Journalist County.
In Vieira’s latest game of pretend, she’s telling people that the furniture on the set of her new TV show will help us see the way she and her family live, which is the way a lot of people live.
For better or worse, Vieira doesn’t live that way a lot of people live; she lives in The Houses of Journalist County. To all appearances, she has absorbed the values of that realm, the values her husband warned about 25 years ago.
Next week, we’re going to show you what occurred when a whole gang of TV news stars huddled together in The Houses of Nantucket County. We’ll review the scam which was visited on the world, a scam which still can’t be discussed by those in Journalist County.
The week after that, as we end our series, we’re going to have a bit of fun! We’ll examine The Lifestyles of Journalist County, including visits to some of the houses which have been featured in national photo spreads.
This week, though, we’re going to look at The Warnings from Journalist County—warnings about the values which were emerging in that realm about three decades ago.
Starting in the 1980s, some journalists warned us about the press corps’ emerging chase after mammon. Cohen warned about the entertainment values which were turning news into pablum.
If you watch Maddow’s clowning tonight, you’ll see some of the tribal pablum which has now emerged. It’s pablum geared to please your palate. But it’s pablum all the same, pablum all the way down.
Tomorrow: Weisberg’s prescient warning