In a year of jarring transition, 2005 may be best remembered for the roster of major media players who left the scene. Dan Rather gave up his anchor chair, Ted Koppel departed Nightline, and Peter Jennings lost his fight with lung cancer. On the print side, the estimable John Carroll left his job editing the Los Angeles Times and the once highly regarded Judy Miller had an ugly divorce from the New York Times. Even Bob Woodward, he of iconic journalistic stature, found his reputation and legend badly damaged by his role in the "Plamegate" scandal.
Locally, a bad newspaper economy forced the Herald and Globe to jettison dozens of veteran newsroom employees, taking with them incalculable institutional memory. After nearly a century and a half in Boston, The Atlantic Monthly sadly packed its bags for Washington. And The Connection — once WBUR’s signature talk show and a symbol of its national ambitions — was unceremoniously yanked off the airwaves.
It was a year in which journalists — from Judy Miller to Providence TV reporter Jim Taricani — defied judges’ orders and stood on the principle of protecting confidential sources. Yet the twisted contours of the "Plamegate" scandal seemed to convince many people that journalists weren’t shielding public-spirited whistle blowers, but were in cozy cahoots with privileged elites and mean-spirited insiders. In this atmosphere, when former FBI official W. Mark Felt was finally identified as the famous Watergate source "Deep Throat," he was treated in some quarters like a manipulative traitor.
But the biggest media story of 2005 came in the wake of a horrific natural disaster. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, one unanticipated consequence was a change in the power dynamic between the press and the president. Stunned and angered by what they had witnessed, journalists covered the carnage with renewed passion and skepticism about the government’s promises and performance. That event — combined with the bad news from Iraq and Bush’s declining poll numbers — triggered what one observer called a classic media "feeding frenzy," with the White House as the main course. After being kicked to the curb since 9/11, journalists began to fulfill their traditional watchdog role with a little more zeal. Whether that lasts is probably the big question of 2006.
BUSH VS. THE MEDIA
"How is it possible we’re getting better intel than you’re getting?" snapped CNN’s Soledad O’Brien to soon-to-be-deposed FEMA head Mike Brown in one of many post-Katrina exchanges in which emboldened journalists aggressively challenged administration spinmeisters. In fact, the vicious storm was a pivotal moment in which a press corps long outmaneuvered and intimidated by the White House found its voice and cojones. (This was a government, after all, that had paid commentators to hype administration policies and issued propagandistic video news releases featuring pretend journalists.)
By year’s end, there were yet more media/White House tensions. Forced on the defensive, Bush was angry that the New York Times had broken the huge story — even after waiting a year — that the administration was eavesdropping on Americans without warrants. And that came on the heels of word that the Pentagon was paying to plant positive stories — that disguised their true authorship — in the Iraqi media, subverting a free press in a country in which the US claims to be planting democratic ideals.
No one summed up matters more succinctly than Congressional Quarterly columnist Craig Crawford, who declared that "the Bush White House has virtually no respect for the media’s traditional role." The difference was that after Katrina, the media started fighting back.
THE PLAME GAME
While everyone wondered whether prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had zeroed in on a White House conspiracy to retaliate against Iraq-war critic Joe Wilson by outing his CIA-agent wife Valerie Plame, real damage was done to careers and credibility in the journalism world. Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify her source — Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby — and then lost her job at the New York Times. Time magazine’s Viveca Novak, who talked with Karl Rove’s lawyer and didn’t tell her bosses, is now on a leave of absence. Bob Novak, the conservative hit man who revealed Plame’s identity, ended his run at CNN. Not only did Woodward — who chatted about Plame with an administration official — end up apologizing for keeping his Washington Post bosses in the dark, the former Watergate sleuth was accused of being so busy snuggling up to Bush insiders that he’d lost his nose for news.
Rather ended 24 years as CBS anchor in March, his exit at least partly set in motion by an ill-fated 60 Minutes Wednesday piece on President Bush’s military record that relied on documents of dubious authenticity. After a long and often controversial career, Rather had the misfortune of leaving under the lingering taint of scandal.
ABC’s two best-known newsmen also signed off. On April 5, the 66-year-old Jennings stunned the nation with the news that he had lung cancer. Four months later, he was dead. Koppel ended 25 years of anchoring Nightline by warning viewers that if they didn’t give his replacements a chance, "the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot."
So far, the jury is out on their replacements. CBS is lustily wooing morning-show diva Katie Couric, ABC opted for movie-star looks and youth with Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, and the new Nightline troika of Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir, and Terry Moran has been greeted with chilly early reviews.
NEWSPAPER DIVE IN 2005
According to Editor & Publisher, more than 2000 jobs were lost at mid-size and major newspapers this past year. Carroll, perhaps the most respected editor in America, left the Los Angeles Times amid concerns that the Tribune Company was squeezing the bottom line. Newspaper giant Knight Ridder is being shopped. Bureaus closed, national editions shuttered, and layoff memos were tossed around like confetti. The San Francisco Chronicle is also thinking about selling its presses.
Squeezed by new technologies, disinterested younger readers, and a no-confidence vote from Wall Street, the newspaper business in 2005 appeared to be on the same trajectory as disco music in the late ’70s.
"Traditional newspapers increasingly will become niche products for the shrinking number of older readers who cling to the pleasure of sitting with a cup of coffee on the back deck on Sunday morning and perusing five to 10 sections of a newspaper," wrote journalism lecturer Don Campbell in USA Today. And he’s an optimist.
One disheartening development for critics of newspaper consolidation was a proposed mega-merger/takeover in the alt-weekly world between Phoenix-based New Times Media and Village Voice Media. No one is quite sure what will happen when Sun Belt libertarian sensibilities collide with the Village Voice, the 50-year-old granddaddy of the liberal alternative-weekly genre.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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