The new Aaron Sorkin series “Newsroom” is getting a pasting from most critics and deservedly so, but it was a media column rather than a television review in today’s New York Times that went right to the heart of the problem about much of today’s media. David Carr’s piece in the paper’s business section today discussed how Sorkin’s “valentine” to the TV news business seems to be an appeal for the embattled real-life CNN to rise above the battle for ratings and stick to the exalted task of presenting real news rather than low-brow fare and amped-up partisan opinions. But the problem with that premise is much the same as the problem with Sorkin’s show.
As Carr points out, Sorkin cheats on his premise, because his idea of a righteous diet of straight news rather than the partisanship of right-wing Fox News or left-wing MSNBC is a catechism of left-wing advocacy. But CNN’s slide in the ratings that Carr aptly compares to a toboggan ride on a snowy hill is not due to the public’s lack of an appetite for quality news programming. It stems from the same hypocrisy that allows Sorkin and HBO to pretend their liberal show is an expression of centrism. Just as viewers will quickly realize the pretense that the desire of Sorkin’s fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) to return network news to the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite is a crock, so too do most Americans understand that most of the hosts on CNN tilt to the left and are disgusted by their pretense of objectivity.
An essential element of the mainstream media’s myth about its own impartiality is the notion that before Fox News came along we were living in a golden age of broadcast news reporting. The days when national news was the dominion of three networks and a few major newspapers is portrayed as Eden before the fall, an era when partisanship of the kind that is now both familiar and expected was unknown. A key element to this fairy tale is the idea that the journalistic icons of the time, like CBS’s Walter Cronkite, were Olympian figures who would never stoop to play favorites or inject ideology into the news.
But this view is totally false. As media news analyst Howard Kurtz writes in the Daily Beast, a new biography of Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley spills the beans on the godlike anchorman’s unethical practices, including blatant partisanship that would make the conservative talkers on Fox and the liberals on MSNBC blush. While Kurtz still admires Cronkite in spite of his flaws, the problem here is not just that god had feet of clay after all. It’s that the truth about Cronkite throws the entire narrative of the liberal mainstream media under the bus. It wasn’t Fox that poisoned the well of journalism, as former New York Times editor Bill Keller recently alleged. Fox and other such outlets were brought into existence in an effort to balance a journalistic establishment that was already tilting heavily to the left. The real sin here is not bias or even partisanship but the pretense of fairness that Cronkite exemplified.