Was Political Coverage Better In 1968 Than Today?

Veteran journalist Lawrence O’Donnell thinks so. He says there was more time for thoughtful reflection on politics, as opposed to the breakneck pace of TV news today.

Here is an excerpt from Jim Warren’s column for Poynter this morning making the case.

There were no “embeds” tweeting (often redundantly) each candidate’s every remark, at times straining to underscore conflict and offer the aura of something new. But there was time to actually think, develop sources and not be contacted every five minutes by an editor wondering if you could match some rival’s sexy-sounding tweet.

There were not the incessant “Breaking News” banners across a TV screen or (the often successful) rhetorical hyperbole of anchors straining every incremental change in language or tactics as significant.

But O’Donnell clearly buys into a view — sure to be seen as retro by a younger generation — that was put to me by Jon Margolis, a retired great political writer for the Chicago Tribune: “What I think may suffer in the current world is thoughtfulness. When you’re writing one piece a day, you can think, filter your thoughts by doing some reporting (that part is made easier with cell phones). If you have to keep updating, changing, reacting to what the competition has not once or twice a day but constantly throughout the day, being thoughtful gets harder.”

Said O’Donnell after researching his book and, especially, reading tons of newspaper accounts: “With a fraction of the resources,” reporting offered “a much more accurate picture of what was happening in that campaign,” compared to the 2016 counterpart. Now there’s far more quantity, but less understanding.

And even conservative papers, he says, didn’t tend to let ideology shape actual news coverage. TV stalwarts like “Meet the Press,” he said, were a long-form forum for reporters to question candidates without the same theatrical flourishes that can mark on-camera interrogations. Yes, one candidate on for a full-hour. 

And there wasn’t the immersion, as one finds now at Fox News, of unsupported conspiracy theories about a wayward FBI or the opinionated but ultimately inconsequential texts between an agent and his senior FBI lawyer-girlfriend.

During the 45-minute trek to get to the gathering, I turned on the car radio and listened to CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Whether the host was Wolf Blitzer, Chuck Todd or Fox’s “The Five,” there was not a single topic discussed that didn’t involve Donald Trump when I turned the dial their way. Two hours later, driving home, it was the same with Anderson Cooper, Steve Hayes and Tucker Carlson. 

Everywhere, at every moment, it offered a case study in how Trump sucks up virtually all the cable news oxygen. And, for sure, it’s all to the ratings gain of the networks. 

So, consumed by information everywhere, with greater access to mountains of great content, are we now better informed on our politics than back in 1968? O’Donnell, for one, says no.