The award for Grumpiest Old Man, long monopolized by John McCain, now rests on the mantlepiece of a new recipient. That would be ABC News retiree Ted Koppel, the legendary scion of Nightline, whose grumpy guest column in Sunday’s Washington Post pined for a glorious golden age of “objective” journalism that never really existed.
Koppel’s lengthy lament – which celebrates the good old days, and disdains the bad new days (the cable TV chat format “is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment”) – has sparked criticism in various quarters. And rightly so. Even though Koppel raises some valid concerns about the public’s growing “appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated opinion,” and about the “monotonously partisan” coverage on Fox News and MSNBC, he rewrites history in order to make his point. Which grievously weakens his point.Koppel writes, “The need for clear, objective reporting (today) is probably greater than it has ever been,” and naturally cites Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and other anchor-heroes of yesteryear as the ideal paragons of “unbiased” information. In other words, Koppel’s contemporaries toiled in an objective “Eden” (his word), eschewing opinion and instead moving facts directly to the marketplace. This objectivity, he writes, “is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism.”How strange. I vividly remember watching David Brinkley deliver countless acerbic commentaries; years earlier, he was known to be a friend of the Kennedy clan even while co-anchoring the nightly NBC news. But it was Koppel’s invocation of Walter Cronkite that really caught my attention. Anybody care to guess what was Cronkite’s most indelible moment as a CBS anchorman?It was this moment, on camera, in 1968: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate…To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past…It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”That doesn’t sound much like “objectivity” to me; no wonder Koppel failed to mention it. What Cronkite did was to arrive at what he deemed to be the truth of the matter, via his best evaluation, analysis, and assessment of the facts that he had gathered from the debacle in Vietnam.Edward R. Murrow used to do the same thing. Murrow, the CBS News icon of the ’50s, is routinely cited as the gold standard of quality journalism by those, like Koppel, who lament the current journalistic climate. But does anybody care to guess what was Murrow’s most indelible moment on CBS?It was this moment, on camera, in 1954, during his special report on red-baiting smear artist Senator Joe McCarthy: “We will not walk in fear of one another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular…”The guy sounded like Keith Olbermann, not like a member of Koppel’s rose-colored objectivity Eden. Indeed, Olbermann on Monday night took great umbrage at Koppel’s Post column, assailing it in a commentary riff that spanned 12 minutes. I generally have trouble watching Olbermann – he makes me pine for Advil – but he landed a solid blow as he harrumphed his way toward the commercial break. He pointed out that the purveyors of “objective” journalism, including Koppel, failed egregiously during the run up to the Iraq war, because they merely reported the Bush team’s deceptive spin without evaluating whether it was actually true.Koppel’s Nightline was one such culprit, said Olbermann: “The utter falsehood and dishonesty of the process by which this country was committed to the wrong war…about that, Mr. Koppel could not be bothered to speak out. Where were they? Worshipping the false god of utter ‘objectivity.'” (The list of “objective” war enablers is too long to detail here, but it obviously begins with The New York Times, which ran Judy Miller’s pro-war concoctions on page one; and The Washington Post, which routinely buried its skeptical stories deep in the paper.)Two hours before Olbermann nailed the Iraq issue, MSNBC contributor and Huffington Post political editor Howard Fineman said much the same thing. During a talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House (which I hosted, video here), Fineman called himself “an unindicted co-conspirator” in the prewar journalistic failure. (He was at Newsweek back then.) The Washington press corps, he said, often exhibits “an instinct for conformity,” never more so than on the eve of war. At such times, the press typically hews to the objectivity practice of merely passing along whatever the administration says.In his words, “One of the downsides of Washington journalism is, you’re forever currying favor with your sources…People wanted to be ’embedded,’ and that’s a powerful lure that the government has, to manipulate the press.”So what’s the best solution? “Let the viewers (and readers) know your passion – as long as the facts check out,” said Fineman. That formula sounds about right, even if it discomfits Ted Koppel. Heck, it worked for Edward R. Murrow.