I’ve noticed that National Public Radio, and our own Vermont Public Radio, have gotten rather chummy when it comes to reporting the news. It used to be something like this:
“I’m David Brinkley.” “And I’m Chet Huntley. Good night for NBC News.” Even in their final newscast together, the personal expressions of mutual respect shared by these two icons were held in the tension of what might be called “journalistic propriety”. The celebrity of the reporter was secondary to the news itself. We didn’t “thank” Sam Donaldson for reporting, or for “being there”. He simply said his name, where he was, and that he was reporting for ABC News.
My … things have changed. “News” has become “Reality TV”. Some say it all began with ABC, always dead last in the ratings for news behind NBC and CBS back in the day. Looking for anything that would give them a boost, they hired William F. Buckley, Jr and Gore Vidal during the political conventions of 1968. For fifteen minutes each night of the conventions these two brilliant ideologues faced off and had at each other – uninterrupted, unedited. Their exchanges are chronicled in a documentary, and at times they are vicious. Historians of “the news” point to this strategy by ABC as the beginning of what has become commonplace – a kind of incivility in American politics that seems to be more for the generation of profit than the proliferation of truth.
What ABC could never have imagined was how, almost 50 years later, those debates tackled the topics that still trouble us – police brutality, the protection of free speech, to say nothing of the way those two men raised issues of racism and homophobia.
But then I think of Jesus. His characterization of the spiritual leaders of his time – in full (and intentional?) view of the public – there is nothing suggesting restraint or propriety about Matthew 23! But there is also nothing to suggest that he said what he did to improve his own ratings.
What does Hilary Clinton really think? Is Donald Trump a “successful business man”? According to what standard? Are the debates for the two of them, for us, or for a shot in the arm for the networks? It wasn’t lost on us, was it, that the first presidential debate was slated to rival the Super Bowl for the number of folks tuning in.
ABC won the day back in the late 60’s. It was seen as a brilliant move, a strategic coup – to have invited these two men and let them have at each other. Billed as a Conservative and Liberal perspective, it was really a ratings ploy. And boy … did we fall for it! I can’t help but wonder … aren’t we falling for it still?