Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Party's Over

Click here for AmazonOver on, Newsweek's Howard Fineman weighs in on the CBS scandal with a provocative piece arguing that for decades the "mainstream" media have in effect been a political party--the AMMP, or American Mainstream Media Party, as he infelicitously dubs it. "The notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press," he argues, is "pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things." And it's been a long time in going:

The seeds of its demise were sown with the best of intentions in the late 1960s, when the AMMP was founded in good measure (and ironically enough) by CBS. Old folks may remember the moment: Walter Cronkite stepped from behind the podium of presumed objectivity to become an outright foe of the war in Vietnam. Later, he and CBS's star White House reporter, Dan Rather, went to painstaking lengths to make Watergate understandable to viewers, which helped seal Richard Nixon's fate as the first president to resign.

The crusades of Vietnam and Watergate seemed like a good idea at the time, even a noble one, not only to the press but perhaps to a majority of Americans. The problem was that, once the AMMP declared its existence by taking sides, there was no going back. A party was born.

The broadcast in which Cronkite declared America "mired in stalemate" and urged withdrawal from Vietnam aired on Feb. 27, 1968. In November of that year, Democrats began an almost unbroken string of electoral losses, including seven of the past 10 presidential elections.

If you accept Fineman's thesis, then the 2004 election was also a repudiation of the AMMP. As an erstwhile antiwar activist who never renounced his "war crimes" calumnies, Kerry was the perfect candidate of the partisan media. No wonder CBS and others tried to puff up Kerry as a "war hero" while obsessing over supposed deficiencies in President Bush's National Guard record.

The New York Sun's Seth Lipsky calls the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth "the flip side of the tarnished coin of CBS":

One was the vaunted network that flubbed the story of a generation. The other was a true band of brothers, professional newsmen not, who had a story that none of the big institutions wanted. They put it on the air themselves with the contributions of more than 150,000 ordinary Americans and discovered that it resonated powerfully with an electorate that had grown tired of being treated with cynicism.

If the downfall of CBS and the voters' rejection of Kerry are the denouement of the Vietnam War, it couldn't have come a moment too soon. For many in the media have been working feverishly to discredit another war--a war that, unlike Vietnam, America cannot afford to lose.

CBS, though, still seems to be in denial about the whole thing. Here's an astonishing quote from the Baltimore Sun:

Executives at the network--long a target of critics who detect a political agenda in its news division--are clinging to the panel's finding on political bias.

"That for us was the big headline: That there was no political agenda, because that would have been terrible," said Linda Mason, CBS News' senior vice president for standards and special projects, whose position was created Monday in response to the report. "We were all greatly relieved to see that the panel did extensive work and gave us a clean bill of health in terms of it not being politically motivated."

Lipsky writes that he is not "terribly troubled by the prospect of bias at one, or even several, of the big networks or newspapers":

The First Amendment doesn't require that one must check his or her biases to enter journalism. On the contrary, to protect the airing of bias is precisely one of the purposes of the Founders in crafting the First Amendment.

We're not sure we agree with Fineman's conclusion that the idea of a nonpartisan press is "pretty much dead." But if CBS won't acknowledge its bias even in such a clear-cut case, it's hard to see how that network can ever restore its credibility as a neutral source of news--or why anyone should bother to watch, especially with so many alternatives available. We wouldn't be surprised if sometime in the next decade the network decides to put its news division out of business altogether.

James Taranto: The Party's Over

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