A Brief History of the Modern Media

July 22, 2011 05:08

The left is always lurking out there, wanting to reinstate a Fairness Doctrine in some form or another, whether legislatively or through less-than-transparent FCC regulations. And it is always about “fairness.” It is more important that the press remain free than being forced to be fair, according to the standards of politicians or bureaucrats.

By Roger Aronoff

This month, July 1st to be exact, marked the 70th anniversary of commercial TV. Actually, TV had existed since the 1939 World’s Fair, but it wasn’t until that date in 1941 that stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) went on the air. For the first time, they were able to sell commercials, just like radio could. The two stations were both in New York City; one was New York’s WNBT-TV (now WNBC) and WCBW-TV (now WCBS). The first commercial news broadcast was that first day, on WNBT, with Lowell Thomas as the anchor of a 15-minute news report.

The dramatic ways that the media have changed over the past half century is a story that AIM has been telling throughout much of the entire period. What follows is an incomplete history of how we arrived at the place we are today in terms of the media. It is an account, both factual and opinionated, of some of the milestones and events that have shaped today’s media landscape.

By the early 1960s, the three broadcast networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, each aired a 15-minute news show every day, at dinner time. That included national and international news. During the 60s, with CBS going first with Walter Cronkite as the anchor, the three networks expanded their evening news show to 30 minutes a day. The only national newspaper at that time was The Wall Street Journal, a Monday-through-Friday business publication with an editorial page that even then was widely regarded as a beacon of conservative thought. Today the Journal has the largest circulation of any American newspaper, more than two million, which exceeds USA Today.

The Birth of Accuracy in Media

This was the news landscape when Reed Irvine, a former Marine Intelligence officer in World War II, and an economist with the Federal Reserve since the early 1950s, decided to launch Accuracy in Media (AIM). The idea grew out of Reed’s monthly meetings with a group of Cold Warriors with strong anti-communist views. If there was one event that triggered the founding of AIM, it was the reporting of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War in January of 1968. Tet referred to the Lunar New Year, and was a major holiday in Vietnam. Both sides had agreed to a two-day ceasefire, to begin on January 31st, but on that very day the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies engaged in widespread attacks across South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The story was widely reported as a major military victory for the North, but, in fact, history has shown that after the initial shock of the attack, the communists were turned back and defeated. Yet it led Walter Cronkite, by far the most influential news anchor of that period, to say on February 27, 1968:

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.”

Soon thereafter, Lyndon Johnson said that if he’d lost Walter Cronkite, he’d lost America, and dramatically announced that he was not going to run for reelection that year. It was clear to Reed that Cronkite, among others, was drawing the wrong lessons from the Tet Offensive. Without debating the Vietnam War at this time, the point is that Reed Irvine came to recognize how much influence the news media could have on the outcome of a war, and America’s national security. We were, after all, engaged not only in the Vietnam War, but in the Cold War, for which the stakes were even greater, and for which Vietnam was a proxy war. The purpose was to challenge the media to correct its errors and eliminate the bias, which he viewed as primarily liberal bias, from their reporting. But Reed could never have imagined how dramatically the news media would change over the next four decades.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the closest equivalent to the Internet as a source of information was newsletters and magazines. Those interested could easily subscribe to dozens of such publications, left and right. That is how I discovered the AIM Report, which I subscribed to for most of its first 25 years, until I came to work here in 1997.

PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, became the fourth broadcast network to cover news, starting in the early 1970s. Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer co-hosted coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1973 and eventually co-hosted the PBS NewsHour, previously known as the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. It began airing in 1975 and continues to this day.

Ted Turner Revolutionizes Cable

Ted Turner, a media visionary, helped revolutionize cable TV in the 1970s. From 1948, when cable TV first became available in the U.S., until 1972 when the government deregulated it, cable was used to carry commercial broadcast TV programs to individual homes out of reach of the broadcast towers that sent out the TV signals. It provided those homes with good TV reception. With deregulation came original programming, initially on a local basis. But Turner saw a different sort of opportunity. Turner had inherited his father’s billboard advertising company when his father committed suicide in the early 1960s when Turner was just 24. He later expanded into owning radio stations, then TV. He owned a UHF station in Atlanta, and had the idea to use a satellite to transmit his programming to local cable TV companies around the country. He received permission to do so from the FCC, and began what became known as the first basic cable network and first superstation, WTBS, in 1976. As this grew to more cable companies, Turner was able to purchase the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA and the Atlanta Braves of Major League Baseball.

His next big idea was CNN, the Cable News Network. I remember well when it was first announced. People thought it was exciting, innovative, and unrealistic. First of all, how could you possibly fill up 24 hours a day of programming, and second, was there really a market for it? In both cases, Turner turned out to be right. CNN went on the air in 1980. Today 24-hour cable news networks are common throughout the world.

Before CNN, TV news came to late night TV as a result of the Iranian hostage crisis. After Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in early 1979, and the Shah was toppled, Iranian “students,” who many believe included Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took the U.S. embassy in Tehran by storm on November 4, 1979. For what turned out to be 444 days, the Iranians held the 53 Americans in the embassy hostage. On day four of the hostage crisis, ABC News began a nightly half-hour show following the late local news called “The Iran Crisis—America Held Hostage: Day 4,” followed by Day 5 and beyond. When they ran out of news about the hostage crisis, they began covering other topics. In March of 1980 the show became “Nightline” and the host changed from “World News Tonight” anchor Frank Reynolds to ABC’s State Department correspondent Ted Koppel, who hosted the show for the next 25 years. National news had moved to night time TV for the first time.

Cable also spawned C-SPAN, which came on the air in 1979. C-SPAN, or the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, was the brainchild of Brian Lamb. Lamb, who had been in the Navy, worked at the Department of Defense in the audiovisual department, and later worked briefly for President Johnson. He also worked as a reporter and a Senate press secretary, and in 1974 he was the Washington bureau chief for Cablevision magazine. His idea was for a non-profit corporation owned by the various cable companies to cover Congress and public affairs. Lamb was the first and only CEO of C-SPAN, which has grown to three channels, a radio station and a vast complex of websites. It is an indispensable source of information about government, politics and public affairs, and in that sense, is about the only media entity that people on the left and right admire.

Fairness Doctrine, RIP

The end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 marked another media milestone. An FCC regulation established in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine required that broadcasters who licensed airwaves from the U.S. government, whether for TV or radio, had to cover controversial issues in a manner that was considered equitable and balanced. That meant that stations had to bring people on to present opposing views to those that had been presented on that station or network. This led to situations where the presidential administration in power would use the Fairness Doctrine to its advantage, and in order to avoid the record-keeping and paperwork accompanying compliance, many stations just stayed away from anything controversial.

In the mid-80s, Mark Fowler, the FCC chairman appointed by President Ronald Reagan, began to repeal parts of the Doctrine because he and Reagan felt it impinged on free speech. At that point, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed legislation, in essence taking it out of the hands of the FCC and making it a creation of Congress. Reagan vetoed the bill and the FCC then voted to abolish the Fairness Doctrine. Despite repeated attempts to bring it back, it hasn’t happened. AIM’s position at that time was that the Fairness Doctrine was necessary to see conservative voices get a fair representation on the air, but it didn’t take long for Reed to change his mind. The end of the Fairness Doctrine, for better and worse, was probably the single most significant factor in the expansion of media to allow all voices access to the marketplace of ideas.

The Rise of Conservative Talk Radio

The most dramatic expression of freedom after the demise of the Fairness Doctrine has been the growth of talk radio, in particular, conservative talk radio. Finally people were allowed to go on the air and express their viewpoints, even when controversial, without the station being required to present opposing points of view. The marketplace would decide who would stay and who would go, and how much money would be made or lost.

The undisputed leader of uncensored talk radio has been Rush Limbaugh. He is loved and despised, but there is no doubt he was positioned in the right place at the right time. He had worked in radio, and in 1984 went to work for a station in Sacramento, California. In 1988, the year after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, he took his show to New York City, brought there by ABC Radio. Daniel Henninger, in an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, wrote: “Ronald Reagan tore down this wall (referring to the Fairness Doctrine) in 1987 … and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination.”

Since then, talk radio has largely been dominated by conservative voices. The top four rated shows are Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. According to the 2010 figures compiled by the influential trade magazine, Talkers, the only liberal of the Top Ten in ratings was #10, Thom Hartmann. The others included Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Lou Dobbs, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Dave Ramsey. The left has some shows on Pacifica, such as Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now.” However, the “progressive” talk-radio network, Air America, which included at one time Al Franken and Rachel Maddow, ultimately failed. So why has talk radio been so successful on the right, but not on the left? It’s partly because conservatives don’t have much of a voice in mainstream media. They do, of course, on the Fox News Channel, but that’s about it. There are a few token conservatives on the other networks.

But Air America had other things working against it, including shady financial deals that helped fund it. Ed Morrissey of the blog Hot Air suggested a theory: “From the start, it seemed obvious that the entire network was nothing but a vanity project for people with more money than sense. Liberals wanted a talk-radio network not because of any overarching demand for the content, but merely to say they had one.” He added that it failed because “the business model it used doesn’t work and it didn’t meet or create any demand for its product.”

Fox News, MSNBC, and the Internet

The 90s brought us access to the Internet and two more cable news networks. MSNBC, which started off as a joint venture of NBC and Bill Gates’ Microsoft, was launched in July of 1996. The Fox News Channel, created by Rupert Murdoch of News Corp, was launched in October of the same year. But it took longer for Fox to gain carriage in some of the largest markets, such as New York and Los Angeles. Eventually it did.

The media universe has continued to expand dramatically in the first decade-plus of the 21st century. Satellite radio has grown by leaps and bounds. Blogs have become a hugely popular way for people to find news sources they trust, aggregated and analyzed by individuals they come to rely on. Large numbers of people have access to a dozen or more 24-hour cable news networks, from all over the world. The Internet has repeatedly reached new levels. In the first stage, people got on computers and the Internet, and learned what was available; the second stage is the rapid growth and multitude of options, and of social networking, such as Twitter and Facebook, each with many tens of millions of users. And the hardware to access all of this has mushroomed. With smart phones like the Blackberry and iPhone, tablets like the iPad and increasingly mobile laptop computers, the world has become a much smaller place.

With this vast universe of media options the need for an organization like AIM is more important than ever. When AIM was launched in 1969, the mainstream media, CBS, NBC, ABC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, carried a consistent message, punctuated on a nightly basis by Walter Cronkite’s famous sign-off, “And that’s the way it is.” Today, that mainstream media have lost much of their audience, but it is still the dominant source of news for a majority of Americans. And what was previously merely bias has in many cases blossomed into full-scale political partisanship. The near-monopoly that the left once had on our primary sources of news has been shattered. But its vast influence has not. Therefore AIM continues to challenge them to be accurate, to correct their errors, to leave the bias to commentators, and to do less blurring of the lines between reporters and commentators than currently exists.

We have reached a point where we as a society are overwhelmed with choices of where and how we get news and information. With the multitude of choices available, this is no time for the federal government to try to get back in the business of regulating the news and information available to us. The left is always lurking out there, wanting to reinstate a Fairness Doctrine in some form or another, whether legislatively or through less-than-transparent FCC regulations. And it is always about “fairness.” It is more important that the press remain free than being forced to be fair, according to the standards of politicians or bureaucrats.

It is a golden age of news and information, with a dark side to it all. It is incumbent upon all of us as individuals to decide what sources we trust for news and information and to then become savvy and educated consumers of that which is important to each of us.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.

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