From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.
By Geoffrey Baym
Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers
Review by Sarah Stonbely
In this excellent new book, Geoffrey Baym tells the story of late 20th-century American political news in much the way that reporters once sought to tell the stories of American politics – in an authoritative, erudite and philosophically informed manner, such that the average educated reader can understand.
Baym’s starting point is that political news on the ‘big three’ networks has devolved into profit-driven spectacle and cynicism – though this in itself is not news. The book’s contribution comes from his analysis of the ‘fake news’ on the alternative network Comedy Central – Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report – and the comparison of them with their predecessors in both the early days of network news and the late 20th century. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Baym argues, are the only network newscasts fulfilling the journalistic mandate of speaking truth to power.
For example, whereas traditional reporters’ response to the growing sophistication with which politicians manipulate the news has been to relativize all political statements – no matter how obviously untrue – as equal, Stewart and Colbert use humor and irony to highlight the ridiculousness of what now often passes for political discourse.
Baym divides the relatively brief history of television broadcast news (his medium of emphasis) into the high-modern, postmodern and neo-modern eras. He wisely does not insist on stark demarcations between them but rather shows how they overlap and continue to inform.