Julian Zelizer: Russert's Most Important Legacy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Harvard University Press).]

There have been many moving eulogies about the late NBC reporter Tim Russert. We have heard about his personal modesty and his extensive preparation for interviews. Russert was able to subtly expose the inconsistencies and underside of politicians with a smile.

But Russert's major contribution is the one that has been discussed the least. Russert was one of the few remaining reporters who adhered to the norms of adversarial journalism without resorting to partisan journalism. He asked aggressive questions, confronted politicians, and interjected his opinions while avoiding becoming a reporter from the left or the right.

There were several important changes that took place in the media during Russert's lifetime. The first occurred in the 1970s with the triumph of adversarial reporting. As a result of Vietnam and Watergate, reporters abandoned the norm of objectivity. Frustration had grown with this style of reporting. Politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy had manipulated reporter's belief in objectivity by stating controversial facts that were not supported by evidence with the full knowledge that reporters would publish their words without challenging them. Younger reporters were frustrated that senior colleagues had not been critical of the Johnson administration in 1965 when he Americanized the war in Vietnam and missed signs of corruption in Richard Nixon's White House.

The era of objectivity gave way to the era of adversarial journalism in the 1970s. The Washington Post's Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward made this style of reporting famous through their coverage of Watergate. They were not alone. Reporting on Vietnam in February 1968, CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite ended his broadcast by finally stating his opinion of the war: "to say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past."

The next change in the media resulted from technology. Cable television made its way into the homes of millions of Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. The medium transformed the news cycle and lessened editorial controls. CNN went on the air in 1980 and offered a 24-hour news cycle. Whereas in the network era-news cycle, the production of television stories took place over the course of an entire day (with producers sending out instructions to bureau chiefs in the morning and making decisions about what to air around five), cable allowed information to instantly go out on the air. Not only was information disseminated faster, but editorial controls diminished given the speed of the news cycle. George Stephanopoulos, a top advisor to Clinton and now the host of ABC news show, said that "stopping CNN was key. If they ran the story all day, however briefly, other news organizations could cite them to justify running their own stories. Our denials would be folded into these accounts, but the damage would be done."

Cable television resulted in the proliferation of news stations. Each show competed for a smaller share of the audience. Television hosts--who played a bigger role in the show -- scrambled to get stories quickly. According to Russert, "with satellites, everyone now has access to the same pictures and sound bites, and news becomes old with amazing speed, things have changed; networks are feeling the competition. We've become more aggressive... 10 or 15 years ago, the networks acted as if there was a tacit agreement to be 'highbrow' in their definition of news. Now we've got Geraldo, Inside Edition, A Current Affair, and Entertainment Tonight. Will their presence drive us, consciously or unconsciously, to gravitate toward more sex and scandal coverage." Newspapers mimicked television. With the advent of the internet, newspapers and magazines were able to publish stories with the same rapidity as television.

The same forces that caused partisanship and polarization in politics swept through the news industry by the mid-1990s, thus bringing Americans to the most recent stage in the history of the media: partisan journalism. Ironically, the norm of objective reporting emerged in the progressive era as an antidote to the partisan press of the nineteenth century. This trend has been most pronounced on television and radio. The move toward partisan reporting accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s as talk radio shows around the country introduced audiences to rightward leanings hosts who were open about their political stance on the news. Fox Television started in 1996 and brought the Rush Limbaugh style of reporting to national television audiences. For Fox, covering politics from the right was always their unstated objective. Fox programming, such as The O'Reilly Factor meshed adversarial reporting, cable era speed, and openly partisan interpretations of the news.

Recently, we have seen the same kind of reporting coming from the left. The former sportscaster Keith Olbermann now has one of the highest rated evening news shows. Olbermann has dropped any pretence of objectivity and has been openly critical of the Bush administration. His "Special Comment" segments toward the end of his broadcast allow him to openly lambast his opponents. Olbermann once said: "This advice, Mr. Bush: Shut the hell up!" Olbermann took an extremely critical stand toward Senator Clinton and offered supportive coverage of Barack Obama, thus making his political positions even more clear.

There is of course room for this kind of reporting and it suits the current political climate of America. But the media needs more Tim Russerts, reporters who maintain the ideals of 1970s adversarial reporting without sliding into the partisan style of 2000s news coverage. Over the long run, partisan journalism undermines the faith of viewers in the people who tell us the news, rather than increasing the healthy skepticism about the people who are the subject of the news.
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