The End of Journalism


The question at a political dinner the other night was "the end of print." More precisely: When exactly did television replace newspapers as the dominant medium in American journalism?

Where you stood on that question depended on where you sat. I thought the shift did not come until late in the 1970s, when satellite transmission gave the networks the ability to broadcast live from almost any place they could send in men with cameras. But perhaps I just represented the newspaper addicts who, like me as a kid, watched Yankees-Dodgers World Series games on TV, then rushed out to buy the papers to see if what I saw really happened.

Bill Beutel of WABC-TV in New York, the big town's most enduring anchorman, said he thought the changeover came much earlier, at the beginning of the 1960s, when President Kennedy exploited and exalted the new medium with live press conferences -- bypassing the old dons of Washington journalism, men who won Pulitzer Prizes for "exclusive" presidential interviews, dependent on the kindness and needs of whoever happened to be in the White House.

Clay Felker, who did a lot to keep print journalism vital with his creation of New York magazine in 1968, was somewhere in the middle. That was appropriate, since part of his formula was to focus on television not as a news medium but as a news-maker.

That's how I remember it, anyway. Print, for a long time, remained dominant partly by analyzing TV or what it showed, and partly because newspapers were the principal source for TV news operations heavy with old newspapermen like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. TV news for a long time was insecure and rather defensive about what it did -- old print-types wanted print approval for their new endeavors.

In fact, one of the important books about network news, "Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News" by Gary Paul Gates, published in 1978, recounts meeting after meeting in which CBS bosses decided what to do each night about the stories in the morning's New York Times. Like me as a kid, they still didn't believe it unless it was in print.

But that was long ago in electronic time. The subtext of the evening's conversation was "print is dead!"

That was bad enough. But it got worse the next day when I repeated some of this to Steven Brill, who began as a writer at Mr. Felker's New York magazine, and went on to found The American Lawyer and Court TV. His own television network's role in the O.J. Simpson case is part of the reason print seems irrelevant now. Mr. Brill said that for him -- a print fanatic who has the New York Times sent by Federal Express if he can't find it on a local newsstand -- the end of the era came during the Persian Gulf War three years ago.

"I watched CNN and I realized there was no reason to read the Times' war coverage," he said. "Who cares what happened 12 hours ago, when you're looking at what's happening now?"

Not exactly. What we were looking at then was what the government allowed us to see. Then, with reporters locked in hotel ballrooms, hostages of military briefers, the print-to-electronic cycle was completed. It was exactly the reverse of the old days: Print was reduced to reporting on what was on television the day before. It was Pentagon-controlled television.

So, what Mr. Brill and I were talking about went beyond the death of print. This is the death of journalism. Or, I might say, a tear in my eye, the end of journalists -- like me. One of the hallmarks of both Gulf War and Simpson coverage was the hiring of outside "experts," retired soldiers or lawyers with free time to act as the intermediaries or fillers between the important stuff -- live action, new film, government announcements and commercials.

Of course, it breaks my heart to write this. But it was fun while it lasted. It's still fun, but I'm not sure it means a heck of a lot anymore. Well, I better get back to the TV and see if there's anything new. Not news, just new.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad