February 3, 1959, was the day the music died – that’s what Don McLean told us in 1971 in that odd hit song about how it was all over for us. That was the day Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, and the “The Big Bopper” died in a plane crash in Iowa. Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa, and you’re dead. Buddy Holly had just disbanded the Crickets and had put together a new group with Waylon Jennings and bunch of his other West Texas buddies, but now that would never be. Ritchie Valens, from out here in Pacoima, the scruffy dusty barrio at the far empty north end of the San Fernando Valley, had had a smash hit with La Bamba – Anglo kids loved it. That was going to change everything, and then his short eight-month recording career was over. Rock would revert to white imitations of black music for the next few decades, and the Big Bopper was just fun. The fun was over. That age of rock music was over. Happy innocence was over. Drive your Chevy to the levee, but the levee is dry.
It was 1971 after all – Nixon was in the White House. That September, the White House “plumbers” unit burglarized a psychiatrist’s office to find files on Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers, to prove he was pervert or something. The New York Times and the Washington Post had published those papers, and suddenly Washington Post reporters were no longer welcome at White House events. Nixon was going to stick it to the Post, and to its editor, Ben Bradlee, who he despised. There’d be news, but the Post would have to report it second-hand, and late. Bradlee was on Nixon’s Enemies List – set up that August by a bunch of White House aides to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies” – even if Nixon himself may not have known about it. It was a nasty time, but the next June, five burglars were arrested in the middle of the night exiting the offices of the Democratic National Committee at Watergate complex, and one of them was James McCord, the security director for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, appropriately known as CREEP. The Washington Post reported that, and got Attorney General John Mitchell, the head of the Nixon reelection campaign, on record denying any link to what those five guys had been up to, whatever it was. Mitchell would end up in jail. Nixon would eventually resign, the first president to ever do that.
Nixon learned that you don’t mess with Ben Bradlee. He wasn’t Perry White, the blustering befuddled editor of the Daily Planet, trying to figure out what Lois Lane and Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen were up to, and never quite getting it. Bradlee was the real deal, and he had Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He gave those two holy hell until they had the Watergate story nailed down, with all the details doubly confirmed, or better – there’d be no speculation or bullshit – and then, and only then, would he run the story. Get the news right or get out. Obama’s birth certificate might be a forgery and he might have been born in Kenya? Ebola might be an airborne disease and all the scientists are lying about it, just like they’re lying about global warming? Bradlee would have none of that nonsense. Confirm the story, from multiple sources – otherwise it’s not news and he wouldn’t print it. Nail it down, make it airtight, and he would print it. He kept his reporters honest. He kept his newspaper honest. We won’t see his like again.
Now he’s dead, and October 21, 2014, may be the day news died too. The New York Times – the newspaper that published all those Judith Miller front-page stories about Saddam Hussein’s very real and very scary weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be crap she was fed from a single dubious source – lauds Ben Bradlee in their obituary, as well they should, given that they could have used someone like Ben Bradlee back them, and includes these details:
Mr. Bradlee’s Post and Woodward and Bernstein, as the two became known, captured the popular imagination. Their exploits seemed straight out of a Hollywood movie: two young reporters boldly taking on the White House in pursuit of the truth, their spines steeled by a courageous editor.
The story, of course, became the basis of a best seller, “All the President’s Men,” by Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein, and the book did become, in 1976, a Hollywood box-office hit. Jason Robards Jr. played Mr. Bradlee and won an Oscar for his performance.
Bradlee did become a bit of a folk hero. He was a man who forced others to get it right, and when they did, he let it rip. He gave America the confirmed and verified truth about what was happening, and folks wanted more of that:
After Watergate, journalism schools filled up with would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, and the business of journalism changed, taking on an even tougher hide of skepticism than the one that formed during the Vietnam War.
“No matter how many spin doctors were provided by no matter how many sides of how many arguments,” Mr. Bradlee wrote, “from Watergate on, I started looking for the truth after hearing the official version of a truth.”
All those would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, however, can forget that they need someone like Bradlee to keep them from taking that heroic intrepid-reporter thing too seriously. Hemingway once said that every writer needs a foolproof, shockproof crap-detector. Few have one of those. That’s why there are editors. They’re probably more important than the reporters. Someone has to keep them honest.
Judith Miller learned that:
On May 26, 2004, a week after the U.S. government apparently severed ties with Ahmed Chalabi, a New York Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. …
Public editor Byron Calame wrote: “Ms. Miller may still be best known for her role in a series of Times articles in 2002 and 2003 that strongly suggested Saddam Hussein already had or was acquiring an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction… Many of those articles turned out to be inaccurate… The problems facing her inside and outside the newsroom will make it difficult for her to return to the paper as a reporter.”
Two weeks later, Miller negotiated a private severance package with Times’ publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. She contested Calame’s claims and gave no ground in defense of her work, but cited difficulty in performing her job effectively after having become an integral part of the stories she was sent to cover.
She needed someone like Ben Bradlee to keep her honest, and the Times didn’t have one of those. She would go on to write for Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, and on October 20, 2008, Fox News announced that they had hired her. They’re not all that particular over there, and while at the Times she did go to jail to protect Scooter Libby and thus Dick Cheney, after all – so she’s one of them. Their concept of news is not Ben Bradlee’s.
That sort of news died when Ben Bradlee died, or earlier when Bradlee retired as executive editor of the Washington Post in September 1991, and he continued to serve as Vice President at Large until his death, but that was a ceremonial title. He faded away, but the loss is real. Who do we trust now? On the day of Bradlee’s death, Pew Research gave us this:
When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals, according to a new Pew Research Center study.
The project – part of a year-long effort to shed light on political polarization in America – looks at the ways people get information about government and politics in three different settings: the news media, social media and the way people talk about politics with friends and family. In all three areas, the study finds that those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views – and very distinct from each other.
John Avlon at the Daily Beast explains it all:
We’re two weeks from Election Day, and you can feel political debates turning bitter, more personal.
Even in a midterm election when exhaustion rather than exultation drives the conversation, there is desperation behind the poll watching. There are no happy warriors these days. Everything feels like a cycle of revenge and retrenchment.
“Politics has become more bitterly partisan and mean-spirited than I have seen in 30 years of writing a political newsletter,” attests Charlie Cook.
What’s changed? Well, the two parties in Congress are more ideologically and geographically polarized than at any time in our recent history. But we’ve had deep divisions in our politics before. And yes, the Wingnuts seem to have an outsize influence on our politics debates. But we’ve had extremists in our politics before.
What’s different is the proliferation of partisan media via cable news and the Internet. Amid unprecedented access to information, our fellow citizens are self-segregating themselves into separate political realities.
The idea here is that “the asymmetric polarization we see in Congress not coincidentally extends to media consumption” now, and the Pew poll just confirms that:
For example, 47 percent of “consistent conservatives” view Fox News as their main source of information. Their “consistently liberal” corollaries split their allegiance among CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and the New York Times. And while liberals deem 28 of the 36 news outlets surveyed as “trustworthy,” conservatives take a dimmer view, declaring 24 of the 36 untrustworthy.
That finding is a direct reflection of the original premise behind Roger Ailes pitching Fox News as “far and balanced.” For conservatives, only explicitly right-wing news organizations can be trusted to tell the truth. Any news group that aims for the elusive ideal of objectivity is de facto liberal, in their view. It’s an extension of an idea more appropriate in wartime: If you’re not with us, you’re against us.
All this makes the pluralism of the modern world a scary, unwelcoming place. And so the reaction seems to be to corral oneself off from disagreement. Sixty-six percent of “consistent conservatives” say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics, and nearly half say they mostly see Facebook posts that match their politics.
It’s not like that for everyone else:
On the other side of the spectrum, while liberals are more likely to consume a broader diet of news sites, just over half say their close friends share their views, and 24 percent of “consistent liberals” say they stopped being friends – or stopped talking to – someone because of politics. For these self-righteous and thin-skinned folks, there are apparently limits to the liberal virtue of tolerance.
Then there are the details:
Among moderates, or those with “mixed” political affiliation, as the survey insists on calling them, CNN fares best as the most trusted cable news network and the Wall Street Journal is the only news organization to be deemed trustworthy across the political spectrum (no small feat, especially given its ideologically driven editorial page). Among the news providers underwater in the trust category are Daily Kos, Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and, oddly, BuzzFeed. Likewise, Slate is viewed at the liberal end of the spectrum.
The leads to nothing good:
A few decades ago, politicians sent talking points to talk radio hosts. Today, talk radio hosts and online echo-chamber pundits send talking points to politicians. They keep their readers and listeners addicted to anger. The durable wisdom of the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan – “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts” – gets discarded when people come to political debates armed with their own facts. And in a time when the fringe blurs with the base and competitive congressional general elections are all but extinct thanks to the rigged system of redistricting, these base-corralling fanatics have the power to strike fear into the hearts of the gutless wonders on Capitol Hill.
This is not a wake-up call as much as it is a challenge. If we don’t find a way to reverse this media trend, America is headed toward Tower of Babel territory.
It kind of makes you miss Ben Bradlee. He wasn’t out to get Nixon. He was out to get the story right.
Justin Elis isn’t that worried:
On their face, these findings might seem to lend support to the idea that we’re becoming a country of smaller and smaller filter bubbles, personalized universes of news and people that fit our own interests. But the connection between how Americans get news and their political polarization is not black and white.
Pew found that on Facebook, the majority of people only see political posts they agree with some of the time. That’s also reflected in the real world, as Pew found people on all ends of the political spectrum tend to get a mix of dissent and agreement on politics in their everyday life. 58 percent of consistent liberals and 45 percent of consistent conservatives say they often get agreement and disagreement in their conversations on politics. For people with mixed political views – Pew’s middle ideological category – that jumps up to 76 percent.
We’re still talking to each other, aren’t we? Cool. But we may not know what we’re talking about at any given moment. We “trust” different news sources, each without a Ben Bradlee these days, to keep things honest, and Christopher Ingraham notes something odd about the least-trusted new sources:
Overall, four of the top five least-trusted news outlets have a strong conservative lean: Limbaugh, Fox News, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. MSNBC rounds out the list. The most trusted news outlets, on the other hand, tend to be major TV networks: CNN, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News, with Fox at No. 5.
The Pew Study notes that “liberals, overall, trust a much larger mix of news outlets than others do. Of the 36 different outlets considered, 28 are more trusted than distrusted by consistent liberals.” By contrast, among conservatives “there are 24 sources that draw more distrust than trust.”
That makes sense. Liberals are, well, liberal – they like a wide range of things, they like divergent views, they’re accepting of the unusual, and people not like them fascinate them. Heck, they find foreign languages fascinating. Conservatives find that odd, or evil, or at least un-American and unpatriotic. That sort of thing leads to the worst thing of all, multiculturalism. It could even lead to moral relativism, and soon people will be marrying box-turtles, and speaking Spanish.
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers says it’s not like that:
As a grad student who has studied polarization, the Pew study isn’t all that surprising (although it is very useful in confirming what many have long assumed.) I think it may be time, however, to challenge a long-standing assertion of polarization studies. As Bill Bishop has argued in The Big Sort, Americans seem to be increasingly segregating themselves along partisan/ideological lines. Not only are our neighbors more likely than before to share our political views, but we also are probably consuming the same kinds of political news and cultural products. This extends to Facebook as well. Some people argue this creates an “echo chamber” that merely reinforces our political beliefs. In other words, the more Fox News we listen to, the more conservative we become.
But I wonder if there isn’t an opposite effect going on as well. The proliferation of media outlets also makes it easier for us to bump into dissenting views. Unlike the 1950s-1980s, when there was one monopolistic media establishment that kept the heated rhetoric toned down, now there are many outlets, giving us all greater opportunity to encounter viewpoints that we find abhorrent and that we can’t believe others harbor. Facebook didn’t so much create an echo chamber as expose us to the private opinions of people we previously assumed were “sane” in their opinions. Consuming partisan news isn’t so much about finding the truth as it is like running for cover in a crazy world.
That might be so, but another reader adds this comment about Facebook:
I think it’s probably worth noting that liberals are more likely to defriend conservatives over politics, but the chances are good that they weren’t very close friends in the first place (although you can find many laments over the end of long-term friendships on the left, often precipitated by relatively mild pushback and a stream of abuse in response). I’m from the Deep South originally, and of course everyone back there “knows” that Obama is a Muslim socialist, because between Fox and talk radio and right-wing churches and the NRA, that’s what all self-described respectable, well-informed people hear (plus, Democrats are the party of black people, who are widely seen as lazy, violent, and ignorant). I effectively defriended almost everyone there many years ago when I left; social media allowed for at-arms-length reconnections without my having to pretend that I had any interest in the ideology or institutions it was such a relief to leave.
For what it’s worth, I just hide the crazies, and have been defriended a couple of times by conservatives (one a relative to whom I used to be close) even though I’m rarely aggressively political except in political fora or among like-minded acquaintances. The truth is that a) I don’t always want to know what people are thinking about important issues, and b) I do think less of political conservatives, because I consider it a mean, regressive, often self-serving inclination in practice. That’s why I left an area in which it is so unquestioned … and a state that un-coincidentally ranks at or near the bottom of every quality-of-life measure.
What did this person expect? The music died on February 3, 1959, and the news that all of us can trust to be the actual news, officially died on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 – and them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die, this’ll be the day that I die. It’s like that.