The pitched battle over impeachment is the last-gasp struggle of a generation that has dominated American politics, media and culture for more than half a century — the Baby Boomers.
It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.
I say this as a member of that tribe (although one on the, ahem, younger end of the timeline), someone who’s lived through the endless political and cultural wars painted in stark black-and-white by a group that only sees life in terms of Us-vs.-Them. It’s a generation, convinced of its own importance, that refuses to leave the public stage: The president, the speaker of the House, and just about all the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates are Boomers, pushing aside anyone below the age of 70.
Along with politics, their influence over media has been profound, turning a once-sober news landscape into a wrestling arena filled with ideologically-driven commentary.
It began from a place anyone could understand. The 1960s presented young people with constant challenges to American ideals: attacks on civil rights, traumatic political assassinations, the war in Vietnam and government lies that allowed that war to continue. Out of that shock to the system emerged the “underground press.” This movement informed a generation that mainstream media couldn’t be trusted, journalistic objectivity was a farce, and factual truth was less important than a “deeper truth.”
Great journalism did emerge from this crusade but, too often, the underground press trafficked in conspiracy theories posing as investigations: slim on facts, fat on fulmination.
Right-wing Boomers soon picked up on the anti-media theme for their own purposes. President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, attacked journalistic objectivity as mere cover for mainstream liberal bias, labeling the press a “closed fraternity of privileged men.”
In the 1970s, the right began to establish its own forms of alternative media, mostly restrained opinion journals published by newly funded conservative think-tanks. That changed in 1987 when, in the waning years of President Ronald Reagan’s second term, his Federal Communications Commission did away with something that had been around since 1949 — the Fairness Doctrine. In essence, this regulation required broadcasters to air both sides of any political issue, a sort of enforced objectivity.
By this time, Boomers left and right had waged a long struggle against the notion of down-the-middle objective reporting — and they were ready for the Fairness Doctrine’s finale. The right jumped in first, initially with talk radio and hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and then, in 1996, with the creation of Fox News.
MSNBC was launched that same year as a just-the-facts news channel, but executives quickly realized Boomers and facts weren’t a good match. The service tacked right to copy Fox, then found its footing as a left-wing antidote.
One result of all this: 30 years after the Fairness Doctrine’s demise, a study found our media environment more polarized than that of any other Western country. Journalism and trust in journalists have suffered amid the gleeful partisan shouting now confused with actual news.
Most generations ease up on the passions and assumptions that drove their youth — it’s a natural part of growing up. But too many Boomers have stuck to a simplistic outlook shaped by the ’60s, a shattered decade of riots, death and deception. We still live in their binary world of hawks and doves, “Love it or leave It” and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that we now have a 73-year-old president who trades in “alternative facts,” conjures up conspiracy theories and commands voters to trust him rather than their own eyes. In many ways, we’ve been racing toward this moment for half a century.
At some point, my generation will exit the public stage — but polarization may not go with us. The internet and social media have made division easier, creating ever-thinner ideological slices of news readers and viewers.
Still, there is a hunger for something different; younger consumers are smarter about media overall, and can more easily sort out facts from commentary. In one research project, students surveyed defined news as the “objective reporting of facts,” a phrase that would make Walter Cronkite weep with joy.
There are signs that things actually may get better. All it takes is for a certain generation to grow up — or step out of the way.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.