Monday, August 04, 2008

"How Martin Agronsky Killed the 6:00 Evening News" by John Amos

Let's take stock of the news business.

Newspapers can no longer compete with the computer. Subscriptions are down; advertising dollars are down. Everyone is reading online. No doubt, I'll soon be arm-twisted into giving up my daily paper -- an actual, physical object, delivered to my house before dawn -- for some ghastly dot-com news source. I'm resigned. There just aren't enough of us who want real ink on real paper anymore. The Newspaper is Dead! Long Live the Internet!

Television news programs have suffered a similar fate. The solid, reliable networks with their solid, reliable anchors (Cronkite, Jennings, Brokaw, and the like) have been pushed aside by flashier, tabloid-esque cable channels. And while I've never been a big fan of television news, opting instead for the breadth and depth of newspapers, it's still sad to see what's happened.

The way I figure it, Martin Agronsky is responsible.

In the late 1960's Agronsky, a respected correspondent for (at times) all three major networks, dropped his job as a reporter to begin a new kind of public affairs program. The show was revolutionary, visionary, so far ahead of its time that no one could possibly realize the impact it would have on the way we view "the news" in this country.

Agronsky's idea was simple: Gather four experts in a studio to discuss the major political events of the day.

I didn't start watching until the 70's after the show had been established for some time. The Jimmy Carter fiasco was in full bloom, and I wanted to know how things could have degenerated to such a pitiable state. So in addition to reading the papers, I turned to Agronsky and Company for analysis.

In those days, the cast consisted of a young arch-conservative named George Will; Carl Rowan, a self-avowed liberal and the most prominent African-American political writer of his day; journalistic elder statesman, Hugh Sidey, editor of Newsweek; and Agronsky himself.

The show was interesting, informative and dignified. The participants discussed the hot political topics of the week. When they disagreed, they did so respectfully. At the end of every half hour, I always came away more knowledgeable about the issues.

But over time, something curious happened. I started seeing these pundits as caricatures. Was George Will really that stiff? Was Rowan really that naive? Would Sidney ever utter an opinion that didn't sound soothing and grandfatherly? Gradually, the substance of their conversation began to get lost in the unreal glow of their television personas.

Without my realizing it, these figures had become celebrities, had morphed into Famous Television Personalities. Once that happened, I was no longer watching the news. I was watching a cartoon. An entertaining cartoon, for sure. Even a somewhat informative one. But a cartoon nonetheless.

The success of Agronsky paved the way for other, less edifying shows. First came The McGlaughlin Group, a shout-fest in which the experts spent their 30 minutes bickering and shouting rudely. Then came Crossfire, pitting partisans from Right and Left, who talked past each other about the issue du jour. Crossfire spawned The Capital Gang, an Agronsky knockoff that truly was more about personalities than issues.

Today the imbecilic political gab-a-thon has become the norm. We're offered The Situation Room, The Verdict, The Factor, and Countdown, mini-dramas with the Star Journalist as central character. In addition to professional yakkers like Wolf Blitzer and Bill O'Reilly, we now have pretty-boy David Gregory, a former White House reporter, whose show reduces politics to a game. Fox's insufferable Sean Hannity spouts jingoistic blather from the Right, and MSNBC's equally insufferable Keith Olberman, trying way too hard to be funny, spins every issue from the Left.

I know all this because I watch. It's my guilty pleasure, my pitiful substitute for the real thing.

Such shows never simply report the news. Instead, they analyze; they predict; they opine. In truth, simple reporting is held in pretty low esteem these days. Any young reporter worth his salt aspires to more. They all have ambitions. Everyone wants to be a star.

Without question, Martin Agronsky was a pioneer; yet I'm sure he wouldn't approve of the path he unwittingly blazed. He wanted a better-informed public, not a citizenry polarized by preening, demagogic talking heads.

Fact: We get the politicians we deserve. Corollary: We also get the media we deserve.

Maybe if we quit watching this silliness, it would go away. Maybe if we demanded better, we'd get it.


- John Amos
from his column "Every Now and Then"
©2008 by John Amos, reprinted by permission
"Every Now And Then: Occasional Essays"

Day 51 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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