Robert MacNeil sees troubling trends

The 'retired newsman' bemoans the polarization of society and politics.
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ask Robert MacNeil to assess the current state of journalism and he offers a modest disclaimer.
"I'm sort of a retired newsman. I'm not following it with the intensity I was when I was working," says the former co-anchor of PBS' "The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour."
But, when pressed, he cites what he considers among the most troubling trends, including news coverage decorated with tabloid glitter and opinion-shaded reporting.
"I think it's only beginning," he said of the latter.
MacNeil blames Fox News Channel for "cynically and deliberately" choosing to build its audience with "aggressive and competitive patriotism and waving the flag."
But it's not all Fox's fault, he said.
Audience expectations are being shaped by the growing drumbeat of partisanship, he suggested.
"As this society, or at least the political animals in it, have become so polarized and so intolerant of other views, Democrats want to see more blood flow from the arrows of journalists and Republicans want more red meat out there going after Democrats," MacNeil said.
When he hears a charge that the now-solo anchor of the "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" failed to go on the attack in an interview, MacNeil thinks he knows the impetus behind the complaint: Allowing guests to air their views through skillful questioning isn't enough anymore.
"It's as though the viewer wants a little window -- you know how they have signing for the deaf -- saying, 'This is full of bull,"' MacNeil told The Associated Press.
Amply qualified
If anyone deserves a place in the debate about news, it's surely MacNeil. His insights represent both experience and the long view: He wrote a 1968 book assessing how the nascent TV medium, in just one generation, was remaking society.
"The People Machine: The Influence of Television on American Politics" -- overshadowed at the time by Joe McGinniss' sexier "The Selling of the President" -- is a thoughtful, 333-page volume that remains pertinent.
While McGinniss focused on TV's role in revamping candidate Richard Nixon's image, MacNeil took on the broader issues of how networks, politicians and government were responding to the growing power of the electronic eye.
When he wrote "The People Machine," television had been a part of U.S. elections since 1948 (albeit with a limited reach) and MacNeil was already an experienced broadcast journalist. The Montreal native started with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in the 1950s then moved to NBC News as a foreign and domestic correspondent. Stints at the BBC and PBS followed.
(His assertions of being a retired newsman aside, the 73-year-old is still hard at work. MacNeil's books include the 2003 memoir "Looking for My Country: Finding Myself in America," and he's working on a PBS documentary and companion book "Do You Speak American?" -- a follow-up to his 1986 documentary "The Story of English.")
Relying on research as well as his catbird's-seat vantage point, MacNeil's 1968 book astutely dissected the potential and shortfalls of the young medium -- and was prescient in how it could go further astray.
The ultimate power of advances such as cable and satellite could not be fully grasped in the 1960s. Now, MacNeil said, they have the potential to affect all news reporting.
American journalism was biased at birth, gaining objectivity after the advent of radio and TV prompted the government to require balance in newscasts, he said.
It was unregulated cable that allowed what MacNeil deems the slanted Fox venture to flourish (although he notes its audience averages a relatively small 1.5 million or so).
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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