Last summer, Gawker asked veteran news anchor Dan Rather to review Aaron Sorkin’s new television series The Newsroom. It was an inspired choice. In The Newsroom, Sorkin feeds on nostalgia for newsmen like Rather—the mythical authoritative anchor who delivered objective facts to the American people in a simpler time, before blogs.
Perhaps predictably, Rather loved the show, giving it six stars on a five-star scale. “I’m aware that my musings run counter to some of the more prominent early reviews in high-profile publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times,” he wrote in an introductory note to his review of the show’s first episode. “But with all due respect . . . I just don’t think they ‘get it’; they’ve somehow missed the breadth, depth and ‘got it right’ qualities—and importance—of Newsroom. Maybe it’s because they are print people.”
So Dan Rather is biased. Why wouldn’t he be? He used to hold court behind an anchor desk in a three-man field; now, he jockeys for attention on an entertainment television channel called AXS TV. Less clear is why that bygone era of TV journalism—the news dominated by three networks, each dominated by white men, none asked to disclose their own prejudices—still looks so good to media critic Eric Deggans, whose new book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, picks apart the racial biases inherent in today’s new media landscape, and casts a strangely rosy view of the old news monoliths.
Deggans is a “print person”—he was the original media critic at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times)—but he’s also a TV guy who has spent much of his 20-year-plus career critiquing that medium. In his book, he argues that increasingly opinion-driven, niche-marketed news networks have created a modern media landscape that “often works to feed our fears, prejudices, and hate toward each other.”
He also argues that media’s role as racial instigator is a recent development. “Before the rise of niche outlets such as cable TV, satellite radio, websites, and social media platforms,” he writes, “big media outlets made their money by seeking to serve huge, diverse audiences and selling advertisers access to them, creating a shared cultural dialog in the process.” In the absence of unifying voices like Rather’s, rival opinion-makers have emerged—Bill O’Reilly v. Al Sharpton, Glenn Beck v. Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity v. Rachel Maddow—each feeding off the other’s arguments. (Typically, one side accuses the other of racism; the other retorts that their antagonists are “race-baiters,” a term O’Reilly himself has applied to Deggans.) “The ongoing fragmentation of media—with Facebook, Twitter, iPods, YouTube sites, and Internet-accessible smartphones allowing users to create their own, custom-tailored media worlds—has only made it all worse,” he writes. “In a fragmented media culture, hate sells.”
Deggans doesn’t clarify how iPods are stoking racial hatred in the United States. Instead, he turns to Rather, who just joined Twitter this summer, has amassed 11,000 followers (1/200th of Rachel Maddow’s following), and is 81 years old. In a conversation with Deggans during the 2012 GOP primary, Rather “admitted to feeling the influence of online media on the reporting process”—as if by engaging with social media, Rather had committed some sin for which he needed to atone. Paraphrasing Rather, Deggans writes that in journalism’s “new, social media-fueled environment . . . race issues are almost the new ‘third rail’ of political discourse—considered dangerous to discuss head on, because any gaffe can spread ‘like mildew in a damp basement.’ ”
It’s true that when Dan Rather’s Twitter feed blows up with minute dissections of a candidate’s every racially charged word, it makes it difficult for politicians and journalists to speak openly and honestly about race. Then again, when in American history has open dialogue about race been a hallmark of our television news discourse? And how does intense and visible public engagement on the issue constitute a step backward? Deggans notes that Rather “covered the Civil Rights movement” in his time at CBS. The implication is that everything was better when just one guy was leading the discussion—and when it was spat out on television, instead of unfurling in many directions online.