David Halberstam’s 1979 book, The Powers That Be, focuses on the evolution of four of the twentieth century’s largest and most powerful media companies and their most prominent figures, many of whom rose to inclusion in mainstream culture:
- Time, Incorporated—Henry Luce, Hedley Donovan
- CBS—William Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite
- The Washington Post—Phil and Katherine Graham, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
- The Los Angeles Times—Norman and Otis Chandler
The approach taken by the era’s best publishers, editors and reporters to the craft of news gathering and production earned the respect not only of their readers, listeners and viewers, but also many of their subjects. They were an important part of the dialogue between citizens and government, between business and customers, and between educators and students.
About 50 years ago, however, a tug of war arose between the professional journalists and the companies’ investors. The result was the subordination of newsworthiness and public service to the pursuit of increased television ratings, stock prices and profit.
“It was the local [television] stations that first discovered, late in the 1960s, that news could make money—lots of money,” said communications professor David Hallin in 1990. By the end of the ’70s, news was frequently producing 60 percent of a station’s profits. With numbers like that, news was much ‘too important’ to leave to journalists, and a heavily entertainment-oriented form of programming began to evolve.”
According to Halberstam, “Greater profits did not mean, as some company altruists had hoped, greater experimentation, more money invested in higher-quality programming. On the contrary, profits brought merely the expectation of more profits, and policies designed to create them. The impulse to take risks in quality programming, to serve the national interest in public affairs, became weaker all the time…the ratings had a morality of their own, they dictated their own reality and their own truth.” [emphasis added]
By the late 1960s television had already changed the market for news enough that, according to Halberstam, when the media did attempt to address serious issues—including the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal—”much of the audience watching the evening news show was composed of people who had never been serious newspaper readers and who were thus unprepared to deal with such charged material.” [emphasis added]
Was it inevitable that television’s immediacy and power—exacerbated now by the lowest common denominator of social media—and the submission to profit as a primary goal would push aside competence in government and business and replace it with myopic and reckless self-interest? If so, Newton Minow’s vast wasteland was just a precursor.