When the question became news

I’ve been in or around the news business since 1969. I covered war protestors and was there when Watergate broke. A lot of people point to Watergate as the pinnacle of press activism and the beginning of the mainstream media slide that we all talk about today. While Watergate was certainly a visible demonstration of press power, the reality is the problem began earlier in the 60s with Vietnam. This is when, for the first time in our culture, the question became news instead of the answer. This is an important turning point in press history, and one about which we talk very little.

For if the question is news, then the asker is the news maker. This not only enabled the celebrity press, but it flip-flopped the entire news gathering process into one that is both presumptive and arrogant, and it has not gone unnoticed by the public. We can thank the televised press conference for that. While Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson asked their hostile questions, who knew anybody was watching? The people watched and watched and watched, and they ultimately gave up. (“I hate that Sam Donaldson, Martha. He’s such a smart ass!”)

Does anybody remember newsreel footage of Lyndon Johnson in the oval office with reporters? Who can forget him being asked what he thought of African Americans wanting to be called “blacks.” His response — in that south Texas drawl — was, “I’ze just gettin’ used to callin’ ’em nigras!” There was laughter and a bit of note scribbling, but that was the extent of it.

How times changed in the next decade.

I’m not saying that the old days were better than these days, but the role shift of the press can be clearly seen in how the White House has interacted with reporters. The question I have is why anybody is surprised that the Bush Presidency gets away with sidestepping the press.

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