Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Collapse of Big Media: Starting Over

The big media, aka, the MSM, have been in decline for some years now. Other media outlets are now rapidly becoming the main source of news and information for many Americans. Terry Eastland looks into this matter in his Wilson Quarterly commentary.

The First Amendment protects against government abridgment of the freedom of the press. But it doesn’t guarantee that today’s news media—some would already say yesterday’s—will be tomorrow’s. Though most existing news organizations will probably survive, few if any are likely to enjoy the prestige and clout they once did. So it’s time to write, if not an obituary, then an account of their rise and decline and delicate prospects amid the “new media” of cable television, talk radio, and the blogosphere.

The “new media” carry the adjective because they began to emerge only in the 1980s, when the media of newspapers, newsmagazines, and network and local television news had long been firmly in place. Most newspapers had been around since the first decades of the 20th century, and though rising costs and competition caused some to be shuttered in the decades after World War II, there were still more than 1,700 papers published daily in the 1970s. Time and Newsweek were established, respectively, in 1923 and 1933. Network television newscasts were reaching most parts of the country by the 1950s, and local stations eventually provided their own news programs at various points in the day.
The new media has made some serious inroads into the territory that was once the sole domain of the MSM. People, in quest of information, to balance out the bias of the MSM, turned to talk radio, cable news and finally the emerging blogosphere.
There are many explanations for why Americans have been turning away from their old news providers, including adjustments in how people now live and work (fewer have time to watch the evening news) and the lack of interest in news evident among younger generations whose tastes often carry them to MTV. But the media can also blame themselves for the change.

Here it bears noting that though journalists aspired to the status of professionals, they never acquired the self-regulatory mechanisms found in law, medicine, or even business. The nation’s journalism schools, which taught—and still teach—a craft better learned on the job, never really filled the void. Those schools often tended to hire former journalists lacking both the intellectual capability and the inclination to undertake serious analysis of the institutions whence they came. Critical scholarship by those outside the guild tended to be summarily dismissed, and the field was always thin on professional journals examining its practices and guiding ideas. Most of those that were tried—for example, I edited Forbes Media Critic from 1993 through 1996—found no footing. Media criticism, such as it was, leaned mostly to polemics and insider chatter (news people are happy to talk endlessly about themselves, evidently on the assumption that others are eager to listen).

Of course, the media did have critics who didn’t publish articles—ordinary Americans. Too often they’d turn on the evening news and hear about conflict and controversy. It was as though news, if it were to be real, had to be boiled down to some negative essence, some clod of dirt that the subjects of a story flung at each other. Or they’d see an interview in which a correspondent would ask a nonquestion question designed to put the hapless interviewee in his or her place. Thus in 1995 did a CBS Good Morning host “ask” then-senator Phil Gramm of Texas, “If you really want to reduce the deficit, are you going to have to cut entitlements? But I’m sure you don’t want to talk about that.” Or the public would read news stories in which the writers took gratuitous shots at their subjects. Thus did Maureen Dowd, before her elevation from reporter to columnist at The New York Times, lead her front-page story on President Bill Clinton’s 1994 visit to Oxford with a sentence stating that he was making “a sentimental journey to the university where he didn’t inhale, didn’t get drafted, and didn’t get a degree.”
Old media let it's political leanings creep more and more into the news they were supposed to be reporting. This came to a head during the 2004 election cycle, with Rathergate and other distortions made by other media outlets, all in an effort to elect John Kerry.
The public had another problem with media figures: their political and social views. Surveys taken over several decades demonstrated that most national journalists voted Democratic and were politically and socially liberal. In 1962, The Columbia Journalism Review published a survey of 273 Washington journalists in which 57 percent called themselves liberal and 28 percent conservative, with the rest choosing “middle of the road” or declining any label. The conservative contingent was down to 17 percent when sociologist S. Robert Lichter and Smith College political scientist Stanley Rothman conducted another survey in 1980. Most respondents said they were “lifestyle liberals,” meaning that they favored abortion rights and affirmative action and rejected the notion that homosexuality was wrong. Eighty-six percent said they seldom or never attended religious services. Eighty-one percent had voted for George McGovern in 1972. In 1992, another survey of 139 Washington-based bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents found that 89 percent planned to vote for the Democrat, Bill Clinton, in the approaching presidential election.

The surveys certainly said something about the media. But they did not say that the news the media provided was biased; that required its own demonstration. Members of the elite media often asserted that the public could count on their professionalism to ensure against bias. Yet they seldom admitted bias, even in stories in which it was all too obvious.
The problem for the MSM, is that many Americans have and do see the bias that they refuse to admit. AS for their supposed professionalism, it comes off more like arrogance and disdain for the "great unwashed masses" who might take umbrage at the MSM's biased reporting.
Some establishment journalists argued that the media now had an obligation to turn the spotlight on Bush. Syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., a former reporter for both The New York Times and The Washington Post, wrote, “Now that John Kerry’s life during his twenties has been put at the heart of this campaign just over two months from Election Day, the media owe the country a comparable review of what Bush was doing at the same time and the same age. If all the stories about what Kerry did in Vietnam are not balanced by serious scrutiny of Bush in the Vietnam years, the media will be capitulating to a right-wing smear campaign. Surely our nation’s editors and producers don’t want to send a signal that all you have to do to set the media’s agenda is to spend a half-million bucks on television ads.”

Not just CBS News but several other establishment outlets were trying to reset that agenda by pursuing the National Guard story, a quest that would carry them to the door of the same man who passed the bogus documents to CBS and was described by the panel that investigated the fiasco as a “partisan with an anti-Bush agenda.” CBS acted first, with fateful results, but none of the other media ever produced any authentic documents either. The story simply wasn’t there.
Dionne came off to many Americans as nothing more than a shill for the Kerry campaign. Kerry made the huge blunder, given his post Vietnam service activities, of making his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his campaign. In their rush to try and rescue Kerry for this blunder, the MSM tried to regurgitate the Bush National Guard service issue, which had already been beaten to death in 2000 election cycle. Dan Rather used forged documents to try and prove that Bush's service was not honorably. Then there was the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth. Many of them served in Vietnam at the same time Kerry did. Instead of investigating the claims the Swifties made, the MSM acted more like the propaganda arm of the DNC and did about everything they could to discredit the Swifties. Just for the record, Kerry has yet to sign an SF-180 as he promised Timm Russeret he would, and to date, there has not been a peep from either Russert or the MSM on this.
Occasionally you see evidence that an old media outlet is beginning to get it. Beginning, I say. Consider The New York Times, like CBS News a charter member of the establishment media, and, like CBS News, an institution burdened by a recent scandal (Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and fabrications) which eventually cost top journalists their jobs. In January 2004 the Times effectively conceded the need to enlarge the field in which it looks for news when it deployed a reporter to cover, as the Times’ press release put it, “conservative forces in religion, politics, law, business, and the media.” It was as if the Times had decided that it should now cover some far-off, exotic country that had suddenly become a world power—and yet it was dispatching only a single correspondent to do the job! But at least that was a start. Finally, there was change. So the Times was right to put out a press release: This really was news.
Old media still really does not get it. At a recent meeting of publishers, there was a sense that their decling influence had nothing to do with them, but it was their readers and viewers that were the problem. This is the type of "we know better then you do" arrogance that will continue their decline. - Sailor

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