Back in the earlier half of the 20th century right through my childhood years and up to the Vietnam War and the cultural explosion we call the Sixties, the press (with some more liberal pockets) was predominantly—at least compared to today’s press—pro-American and at least somewhat supportive of whatever government might happen to be in power, especially during wartime.
Time and Life were not only read by a huge number of Americans, but they were published by a man who was fairly conservative, Henry Luce, and they set the cultural tone, especially Life. The Saturday Evening Post was similar and the Reader’s Digest was read by a lot of people, too. Movies were on the same page.
During the 60's, as we know, all of that changed. We can date the change to this moment or that, but I think we can all agree that major elements for the press were Vietnam after Tet (including Cronkite’s response, which I've written about here), the Nixon years and Watergate. Suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly but over a period of less than ten years, the press saw itself as “speaking truth to power,” reforming government and making it more responsive to the people. It became, at least in its own self-admiring eyes, a whistleblower on government.
This would have been okay except for a couple of things. One was that America doesn't exist in a vacuum. The press’s relentless negativity about the country and its policies, and some of its presidents, was taken as gospel and accentuated abroad. After all, it was almost unheard of for other countries to do something similar to themselves, so why wouldn't they believe things must be even worse than the press was saying? Another was that it required even-handedness; the press needed to speak truth to power whichever party was in power, and to require of itself a strict devotion to getting its facts straight.
As time has gone on, though, that press has fallen more and more behind on that latter task. It goes without saying that they were always going to be rough on Republican presidents, beginning with Nixon. But to the best of my recollection they were not especially easy on Carter either, once the honeymoon period was over (isn’t it quaint, now, the idea of temporary a “honeymoon” period for both a Democratic and a Republican president—the Democratic because it’s a never-ending honeymoon now, the Republican because even the honeymoon is a knock down drag out battle?). And even Clinton, although he got a lot of good press for a long time, wasn’t always a media darling.
That changed with Obama, of course. Obama is the recipient of such fawning worship, such complete lack of criticism (and the opposite for the opposition) that it would be almost laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
The reasons are fairly obvious. Obama is the president the MSM of this generation has always dreamed of, as though sent by central casting. And it occurs to me that the press, having worked so hard for so many decades to “speak truth to power” and to further its own liberal agenda, recognizes that it has finally gotten what it wanted. Criticizing Obama would be to kill one’s own beloved creation, the fruits of all one’s labors. Why would anyone want to do that for some abstract notion like truth, or reporting? Wasn’t the point of all the reporting to coax America into electing someone like this, and then another person like this, and another?
And so, in an interestingly ironic twist, the press—which earlier in the 20th century was marching somewhat in lockstep with the government, at least in wartime, and which had some respect for the person who held the office of president no matter which party, and which had set itself up as the official government whistleblower during the 60s and beyond—has come full-circle back to marching in lockstep with the government, probably more than ever before, while somehow simultaneously retaining its own vision of itself as whistleblower by concentrating that function on Republican administrations. The press rebelled and remade American opinion in its own desired image, and is now the mouthpiece for the party a la Pravda, turning in its press badges to become bards and tribute singers to the current administration.