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The Bullshit Issue

Momma's Boys

Nepotism in the news.

Κείμενο William McGowan
01 Δεκέμβριος 2003, 12:00am

Clockwise from top left: Gloria Vanderbilt’s son (CNN), the son of Yale University’s Benno Schimdt (CNN), Mario Cuomo’s son (ABC), Marlene Sanders and Jerry Toobin’s son (CNN).

Late last month, just as the war in Iraq was kicking into overdrive, the New York Times ran a front-page analysis of what it said was the US military’s overdetermined “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 don’t run in the Times are often as telling as those that do. This particular piece made me wonder: When are we going to see a story about caste formation in the media, 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 of 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 “café society” friends––have achieved a small but critical mass in many news organizations. Call them “media legacies,” analogous to the “alumni legacies” who have figured recently in the debate over affirmative action and university admissions.

Take in just one night of coverage, and you may ask whether network executives in charge of on-air talent are 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 (son of Mario) and Chris Wallace (son of Mike). NBC has John Siegenthaler, whose father John Sr. was for decades the editor of the influential Nashville Tennessean.

Even the populist Fox has its prince, in the form of 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 also a regular guest on MSNBC’s Donahue show until its plug was pulled.

Print journalism is full of these kind of legacies, too. Newspapers are usually egalitarian cultures, although the publisher’s job at a family-owned newspaper (New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post, etc.) is generally a family affair. 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, and these legacies seem to have funnier stories. For example, when John Podhoretz, sonof 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 members thought the younger Podhoretz’s real name was “Normanson.”

What’s driving this trend is hard to say, other than forces at play throughout professional-class America. There’s more competition for jobs, especially glamour jobs, and overinvolved parents and family members are less reluctant to use contacts on their children’s behalf as 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-anxious Manhattan—where dinner-party invitations, private-school admissions, and co-op approvals often depend on help from on high. And how could an industry increasingly obsessed with celebrity remain unaffected by the names of the well-born and tony?

Clockwise from top left: Ted Koppel’s daughter (CNN), the son of John Siegenthaler of the Nashville Tennessean (NBC), the Social Register Altschuls’ daughter (MTV), RFK’s son (Fox).
Some perspective here: This is not the biggest threat to democracy we know; nor is it a huge threat to journalism, 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 generalizations about the competence or credibility of the individual journalists I’ve noted or of the group as a whole. (Although how Anderson Cooper could go from host of the reality-TV show The Mole to anchorman at CNN is 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 born 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 some of the 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 Police Commissioner Ray Kelly; before getting into the news business, the younger Kelly was a Marine pilot patrolling the Iraqi “no flight” zone. Photojournalist Molly Bingham, a scioness of the Kentucky newspaper Binghams, showed incredible guts by remaining behind in Baghdad for the bombing. Suspected of being a US spy by Iraqi officials, Bingham was listed as missing-in-action for a week until she was finally released, along with several other journalists.

When it comes to the credibility of reporting and analysis of class issues in America, however, the “legacy” trend does not augur well. Class has long been the press’s weakest suit, and represents its most significant blind spots, encouraging socio-economic obliviousness in some places and socioeconomic sentimentality in others. For all the talk about media diversity, class is still given short shrift.

The faces and names associated with “media legacies” can’t help but reinforce a widely held impression of a journalistic elite heading more out of touch with its mainstream audience and readership. It also can’t help but affect reporting and analysis of a broad array of social issues where 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 raised with considerable advantages in life may have a harder time than others identifying with strivers 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 reportorial rigor and professional detachment. And when the story of affirmative action in high education shifted to the subject of alumni “legacy” admissions, the press, beset by its own alumni legacy problem, did not seem in exactly 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 airmen who have fought and died in this war. But playing Ernie Pyle is not the same as maintaining an everyday journalistic understanding for the emotional, social and economic bearings of average people who are the nation’s true center of gravity.

Famed CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow said that when he had a really complicated story to report, he used to think of his Midwestern boyhood friends, and simply tell the story as he would have told it to them. I’m open to being told I’m wrong here, but somehow I suspect that those raised in the posh confines of the Dakota—or those who were their regular guests—couldn’t claim Murrow’s lasting journalistic North Star.

author, Coloring the News

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