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Happy New Year and thanks for great work, C-SPAN

In looking back across the media landscape of 2010 in these final hours of New Year's Eve, I have been thinking about the year's top performers.

Fox News had an incredible ratings year, and listened to its better angels on election night offering viewers mostly straight news and sound analysis. Good for Fox News. And good again for the way it has played watchdog on the White House.

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But Fox also gave candidate Sarah Palin the biggest soapbox she's ever going to get, and provided her with a gold-plated way to avoid talking to the press even as she clearly campaigns for a presidential nomination. That is a dangerous development in the increasingly incestuous relationship between media and politics.

Fox's contractual relationships with GOP candidates are a major journalistic problem, and Roger Ailes needs to figure out pretty fast in 2011 how he wants to handle it if he doesn't want to squander the credibility folks like Bret Baier, Shepard Smith and Juan Williams have earned for the ratings leader this year.

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Jon Stewart ended the year with a superb effort on behalf of first responders. But earlier in the year, he also gave us The Great Tent Revival and Puppet Show in Washington that far too many of my colleagues treated like a modern day Sermon on the Mount  instead of the empty exercise in noise and ego that it was.

I could go on with the back-and-forth on several others who had very good years, but no one in the media did its job better this year than C-SPAN. While CNN and Fox are sending out press releases and banging the drum for a handful of candidate debates they have booked for 2011, I'm here to remind readers of this blog that C-SPAN fully covered 142 candidate debates in 2010 for the mid-term elections: 54 for Senate, 38 for House and 50 for governor's races.

One-hundred-and-forty-two debates, and then C-SPAN archived them not just for the on-demand imperatives of today, but for students, scholars, citizens and serious-minded journalists to visit and re-visit. You can visit them here. Check it out. I spent half the afternoon looking at them. (Pictured: Delaware Senate debate)

C-SPAN does not claim to be a journalistic operation. But consider this. Sociologist Michael Schudson, in his thought-provoking book, "Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press," describes "our common understanding of journalism as the practice of periodically producing and publicly disseminating information and commentary about contemporary affairs of general public interest and importance."

Is that not exactly what C-SPAN provided with its election coverage in 2010? And if Schudson is right, and I believe he is, didn't C-SPAN serve democracy better than any journalistic operation this year?

CNN's election night coverage mirrored the struggle for the soul taking place at the ratings-troubled cable channel. Does it want to be a beacon of reliable information and analysis or a personality-driven stage for bickering "celebrities"? The stage on election night was wall-to-wall with analysts chattering like a house of crazed chipmunks. Meanwhile, there was no sound coherent narrative being provided to help viewers sort through all the election-night noise.

(I didn't write that in my election night analysis because I was so appalled by what was happening on MSNBC, which went absolutely partisan psycho -- hectoring and mocking conservatives who were trusting or foolish enough to come on the Keith-Olbermann-led adolescent hissy fit. I am still stunned by what I saw on MSNBC election night -- and I am still amazed that NBC News let things get that out of control without an adult stepping in and putting a stop to it.)

Enough talking about all the bad and depressing developments in media in 2010.

Let's leave it right here for 2010: Thank you, C-SPAN, for knowing what you are about and staying on course this election year.

And thank you to all the loyal readers of this blog in 2010. Happy New Year, and a promise: Z is going to hit the ground running and never slow down in 2011.

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