Late in March, just as the war in Iraq was kicking into overdrive, the New York Times ran a front-page analysis of the U.S. military’s “working-class” composition. The piece raised anxieties about the possible development of a “warrior caste” — a caste with worrisome conservative political leanings.
The stories that run in the Times are often as telling as those that don’t. This particular piece made me wonder: When are we going to see a story about caste formation in the Fourth Estate, and the implications this trend has for journalism and the public interest? Shouldn’t the insularity and largely liberal leanings of this media caste be a source of concern too?
These questions seem even more appropriate after a few weeks spent channel-surfing the war news. The coverage has showcased a rising generation of talented, intrepid combat correspondents, some of whom have died on the battlefield. But it has showcased something else too: high-end media nepotism. Even as reporters in the field do the egalitarian legacy of Ernie Pyle proud, the sons and daughters of media biggies — as well as the children of their “cafe society” friends — have achieved a small but critical mass in many news organizations. Call them “media legacies” — analogous to the “alumni legacies” which have figured recently into the debate over affirmative action and university admissions.
Take in just one night of coverage at the height of the fighting and you could have asked whether network executives in charge of on-air talent might be using Vanity Fair as a recruitment tool. On CNN there’s Andrea Koppel, daughter of Ted and Benno Schmidt, son of the former president of Yale. CNN also boasts anchorman Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt — as well as Jeffrey Toobin, whose mother, Marlene Sanders, was one of the first women to make it at CBS News as a correspondent and whose father, Jerry Toobin, was at NBC for many years.
Over at ABC, there’s Chris Cuomo; NBC has John Seigenthaler, whose father John Sr. was for decades editor of the influential Nashville Tenessean. Even the populist Fox has its prince — Douglas Kennedy, son of RFK. And let’s not overlook the news division of MTV either, with the fair and fond Serena Altschul, daughter of the Social Register Altschuls, and who was also a regular guest on MSNBC’s Donahue until its plug was pulled.
Print journalism is full of these legacies, too. Newspapers are usually egalitarian cultures, although the publisher’s job at a family-owned newspaper is generally a family post. But magazine journalism is full of people whose parents — and parents’ influential friends — were a factor in their career paths.
It should be noted here that the nepotism issue is largely a liberal thing. But conservatives have their legacies too. (They also have more humorous stories. When John Podhoretz, son of Commentary founding editor Norman Podhoretz, first went to work at the Washington Times, gossip about “Norman’s son” was so widespread that some less-informed staff thought the younger Podhoretz’s last name was “Normanson.”)
What’s driving this trend is hard to say, other than the forces at play throughout professional-class America. There’s more competition for jobs now, especially glamourous jobs, and family members are less reluctant to use their contacts than others before them might have been. For news executives, being nice to prominent sons and daughters can enhance one’s social life and status — always a plus in status-conscious Manhattan, where dinner-party invitations, private-school admissions, and co-op approvals all often depend on help from on high. Besides, how could an industry increasingly obsessed with celebrity not be swayed by the names of the well-born and tony?
Some perspective here: This is not the biggest threat to democracy as we know it; nor is it a huge threat to journalism, already burdened by so many other structural problems. And it should be noted quite emphatically that the news industry is not like Hollywood, where the levels of nepotism are almost self-parodying.
It would be wrong, too, to make any generalizations about the competence or credibility of the individual journalists I’ve noted, or of this group as a whole. (Though how Anderson Cooper could go from hosting the reality-TV show The Mole to being anchorman at CNN remains a bit of a mystery.) Legacies often bring a wealth of resources, connections, and experience to the table. And, theoretically at least, everyone — born high or not-so-high — has the capacity to leap over his or her shadow, become his or her own person, and develop into a great journalist, if the temperament and drive are there. For every one of the new nepotistas who had an easy ride, there are those who paid dues, just like most everyone else in the profession.
Indeed, some of the best and bravest American journalists in Iraq might be considered media legacies. The late Michael Kelly, Atlantic Monthly editor-at-large and columnist for the Washington Post, had two parents in the newspaper business. FOX’s Greg Kelly, the first embedded reporter who made it into Baghdad, is the son of New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly — before getting into the news business, he was a Marine pilot, patrolling the Iraqi “no-flight” zone. Photojournalist Molly Bingham, a scion of the Kentucky newspaper Binghams, showed incredible guts by remaining behind in Baghdad for the bombing. Suspected by Iraqi officials of being a U.S. spy, Bingham was listed as MIA for a week until finally being released, along with several other missing journalists.
When it comes to credibility in reporting and analysis of class issues in America, however, the “legacy” trend does not augur well. Class has long been a press weakness, and represents one of its most significant blind spots — encouraging socio-economic obliviousness in some places and socio-economic sentimentality in others. For all the talk about media diversity, class is still given short shrift.
The faces and names associated with “media legacies” inevitably help reinforce the widely-held impression of a journalistic elite that is increasingly out of touch with its mainstream audience and readership. It also necessarily affects coverage and analysis of a broad array of social issues in which class is either the primary focus or the subtext.
Take the issue of racial preferences. The press in general has been supportive of racial preferences and other forms of affirmative action. Not all of this support reflects the influence of overprivileged journalists, but I wonder whether people who have been raised with considerable advantages in life may have a harder time identifying with the strivers who find themselves frustrated by double standards in university admissions, or by numbers-driven hiring and promotion policies. They also might be more susceptible to liberal guilt, undermining both reportorial rigor and professional detachment. And when the story shifted to the subject of alumni “legacy” admissions in higher education, the press, beset by its own alumni-legacy problem, hardly seemed in the best or most intellectually honest position to comment.
In the end, paying tribute to the legacy of Ernie Pyle has produced great front-line reporting, affirming the humanity and valor of the soldiers, sailors, and airman who have fought and died in this war. But playing Ernie Pyle is still not the same as maintaining an everyday journalistic understanding for the emotional, social, and economic bearings of average people in day-to-day life.
Famed CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow said that when he had a really complicated story to report, he would think of his boyhood friends in the midwest, and simply tell the story as he would have told it to them. I’d be open to being told I’m wrong here, but somehow I suspect that those raised in the posh confines of the Dakota — and those who were their regular guests — would have trouble claiming Murrow’s lasting journalistic north star.
— William McGowan is author of Coloring the News.