Thursday, August 19, 2004

More Media Matters

Before I begin, allow me to apologize to Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit for thinking he had built the most popular blog in the world based on linking to other articles and blogs, but didn't provide perma-links to his own posts. Turns out he does. That's what the little graphic of two chain "links" next to the footer of each article is for. And with all my neurons firing at full speed, it took me until 3pm today to discover it.

I know this because I was trying to link to one of Glenn's posts this morning, regarding media silence about the Swiftboat veterans charges against Kerry, and "discovered" I couldn't do it. So you can either pop over to the perma-link I was sure didn't exist, or read the excerpt below which I copied because I thought I had to:
"... But this story [the Swiftvets thing - ed.] seems to me to be absolutely fascinating in that it reveals just how in the tank for the Democrats the mainstream media are, and how little the vaunted Cronkitean claims of objectivity and research and factual accuracy really mean when the chips are down. What's more, lots of people are noticing.

To me, that's a bigger deal than the underlying issue or even, in some ways, the election itself. Elections come and go, politicians come and go, and pretty much all of them turn out to be disappointments one way or another. But the "Fourth Estate" is a big part of the unelected Permanent Government that in many ways does more to run the country than the politicians. And it's unravelling before our very eyes, which I think is the biggest story of the election so far. ..."

I commented on this topic yesterday, but as usual Glenn summed it up better. That's why he's the Instapundit and I'm not.

But he brings up an interesting aspect about this with lines like: "lots of people are noticing," and, "it's unravelling before our very eyes."

Well, maybe. But anytime you're in the middle of a revolution (and I'm talking about technology here, not a political revolution) the outcome is probably not going to be what you expect. And I absolutely believe we're in the midst of a technology driven media revolution right now.

So is the new media challenging the old media? Yes, it sure seems to be. Does that mean the old media are going to collapse before our eyes? Unlikely, and probably overstating Glenn's point anyway.

Lileks had another interesting perspective about this in his recent Newshouse column (stay with me and I promise, I'll try to make an original point eventually):
"...In the old days when big cities had a score of squabbling papers competing for the public's penny, journals made stuff up. They sat on some stories, heralded others, all to advance the interests of the party they supported. ...

[snipped for brevity - read the whole article for the full frontal Lileks effect]

... Each insisted its paper was fair and true. Really. Utterly honest.


The same assertion prevails today, without the wink. Since the Second World War papers have draped themselves in the holy cloak of Objectivity. Reporters are no longer participants in the daily scrum of human events but Olympian observers who reside in the clouds, yet still note the humble ant."

Lileks goes on to hope that this little Swiftboat veteran incident will at least shame the media into coming out of the closet and confessing their biases, and let the chips fall where they may.

And I hope I stumble across the winning lottery ticket on my way to the car this evening. Neither of us is likely to have those particular hopes fulfilled.

So in wondering about more likely outcomes, I started to think that maybe we're not asking the right questions about this at all.

For one thing, I find it completely implausible that the old media are going to have a great awakening prompting great change over this. They're going to go forward continuing to claim that they're both more objective and more responsible than any of their competition. They can get "caught" by all the Instapundits of the world dead-to-rights over and over, and their tune won't change.

So where does that leave us?

Well it leaves us with a mainstream press which denies it's biased, and a new media which insists that it is. Both of them are able to offer examples in their own defense, and both of them are able to dismiss the other side's validated charges as exceptions to the rule. In other words, it leaves us exactly where we are today.

So I'm thinking this has nothing to do with the "gotcha" game. There will be no shining single event which changes everything for everyone. I don't care how big the Swiftvets story gets, or how bad it makes the old media look, in one sense it's not going to fundamentally change a thing. And yet in another sense it already has. Confusing? You bet. Let me try to 'splain.

People in the new media - from talk radio to the blogosphere - are just as accustomed to looking at this sort of event from the top down as the old media. That's why they want the New York Times to confess their bias to their readers. And why they fantasize about Peter Jennings wearing a big "I am a liberal" button on the evening news. That's where they think they need to focus their attention, because those are the guys in charge of the media. But perhaps that's already an obsolete way of looking at this.

The new media is driven from the bottom up. Writers quickly come out of nowhere to become tremendously influential all the time. They generally don't have a big publisher behind them, or an established old media reputation to stand on. As a result, readers have learned do their own assessment of bias, cross-checking claims and sharing the results. There's no need to worry about bias, because you just assume it and check out any facts you'd like on your own.

This is "bottom up" because readers don't accept reputation as a substitute for honesty. They'll check your claims mercilessly (or at least read the work of others who do) and "fire you" or "tune you out" if you get caught lying to them. The audience controls their own media content, and if you lose your reputation with them you will no longer find space on the virtual "front page" of their web browser.

With that in mind, on to words of Roger L. Simon who writes:
So that leaves us renegades on the Internet. We're propagandists too. Big time. But at least we admit it. Judge us how you will. But judge the mainstream media the same way.

But perhaps what Roger is asking for has largely already come to pass. Perhaps the real impact of the new media is more than just a new format for top-down punditocracy. Perhaps it's creating a new kind of news-consumer which is now replacing the old. And if so, the place to look for the dam breaking isn't above the fold in the New York Times. It's inside the mind of the guy reading the New York Times. Perhaps those opinions have already been shifting around in a way that makes charges and counter-charges of media objectivity irrelevant.

Heck, I myself read stuff from the New York times all the time via online articles which are linked all over the place. For a long time I've thought of myself as something other than the "normal" Times reader, because I approach their paper already assuming I'm reading something with a leftist bias.

But maybe... just maybe... I'm exactly the sort of news consumer that is fast becoming the norm. The old media don't have to tell us their bias. Because, just like online, that's assumed by their readers anyway. And we'll cross-check them on our own, just like we'd do reading some new blog. And we'll surely not expect to get the whole story from a single source, so we'll actively seek out the opinions of those known to have different perspectives as a matter of course.

So getting back to Instapundit, who's predicting a sea-change around this one political story, and Lileks, who harkens back to the day when the media acknowledged their bias and hopes for its return, I think I'll have to spin a slightly different direction and say I think neither one is thinking about this quite right.

The real story here might be that the story is no longer about the journalists, or editors, or reporters, or commentators. It's about the news-consumer. And they seem to have already begun a mass migration away from the old notion that the media is ever expected to be objective. Perhaps the importance of this whole Swiftvet thing that has so captured the right side of the blogosphere is simply as an illustration of, rather than a contributor to, this change.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking good Doug, jpsb

11:31 AM  

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