"At 6 a.m. on October 7, 1996, the stone age of American journalism officially began. We were on the cusp of going from Cronkite and Brokaw to O'Reilly and Hannity. Fox News went on the air with 18 million subscribers …"
So writes Marvin Kitman in this month's Harper's Magazine. His piece is about the architect of stone-age journalism, Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Kitman, a media critic for 36 years, relates how the tabloid tastes of the bottom-feeding Aussie came to infiltrate and dominate the U.S. media landscape - to the point where the public discourse has dissolved into a puerile and polarized junkfest.
The magazine analysis is well-timed. The debilitating impact of the decline in journalistic standards was among the chief reasons that tens of thousands came to Jon Stewart's rally on Saturday to restore sanity in Washington.
Right-wing carnival barkers have always been a part of the U.S. political/media landscape. But they were relegated to the fringes. Sober-minded voices such as Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings set the media standard. What Mr. Murdoch did, chiefly with his Fox network, was enable those on the margins to move into the mainstream. He gave the Elmer Gantrys of the United States the big stage. The key strokes, writes Mr. Kitman, were his running roughshod over regulatory authorities in Washington and his eclipsing of former CNN king Ted Turner.
Mr. Murdoch's arrival paralleled the advent of the 24-hour cable news era. It was all news all the time, as opposed to the half-hour evening news shows and Sunday panels of the old days. All media all the time turned to all shouting matches much of the time because, as the head of News Corp. well knew, what sells best on TV is not reason but rants. Mr. Murdoch's blowhards became superstars.
Then came a pause. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama moved the discourse to higher ground and nobler purposes, leaving the loudmouths baying in their dungeons. The clamour subsided. Faith in American standards was restored.
But having inherited a nightmare of debt, war and economic despair, Mr. Obama could deliver no miracles in two short years, and the great expectations went unsurprisingly unfulfilled. His effort at consensus-building impressed neither the right nor the left. Given the anger of the economically dispossessed, the ground was again fertile for the hollow-minded sloganeering that has dominated the midterm elections.
Jon Stewart has the formula that can perhaps stall or reverse this trend: satire and ridicule. The more he gets people to laugh at the Rush Limbaughs, the more they'll lose credibility.
On Larry King Live last week, commentator Ben Stein noted how the media were now running America. They choose the issues to amplify, they tell the people what they should think on these issues, they do it around the clock, and no one, not even a president as eloquent as Mr. Obama, can avoid being crowded out by the cacophony.
Canada hasn't descended so low, one reason being that we have a major public broadcaster (or what remains of one). Another is that Canada's conservative commentators are in no way comparable to the Limbaughs, Becks and O'Reillys south of the border. The country will get its own right-wing television network soon, courtesy of Sun Media. Its market penetration will be initially small, but Stephen Harper, who lunched with Mr. Murdoch in New York last year, has shown there's a big right-wing base in Canada to draw on.
The network will be a Canadian experiment, and the potential for low-grade polarization of the discourse is certainly there. But we're a long way from the climate that brought so many Americans to the National Mall on the weekend.
"If we amplify everything," Jon Stewart told them, "we hear nothing." His rally was a hopeful sign. It showed that there are many out there ready to take on Fox. It showed that there are many who understand that tabloid journalism, left unchecked, fosters a tabloid society.