Thursday, September 09, 2004

Putting Media Bias in Perspective

On my way out to pick up lunch today, I got to hear a brief clip Rush played from CNN's Jeff Greenfield from some news-analysis show last night (I didn't catch which one). In light of the media's decision to once again bring up questions about Bush's National Guard service, Jeff was bemoaning the fact that Bush supporters wouldn't believe it unless it came from one of their trusted sources of information, while the Kerry backers wouldn't believe the Swiftvet stuff unless it came from one of their trusted sources of information. Jeff then pondered in a painstricken tone whether there was any single source both sides might trust anymore?

The smarmy side of me wondered how hard Jeff was lobbying CNN to go after the Swiftvet charge the same way they flogged the Bush National Guard story, since he was so concerned with media trustworthiness in a partisan era.

But that's just taking a shot at an inviting target. It's really not the point.

Not to toot my own horn (okay, maybe just a little), the point was actually made right here a couple of weeks ago.

I pointed out that no top-down answer to Jeff's problem is possible. This change is being driven by the news consumer, not the media. We've already left the era when the average news consumer believes in an objective media. We expect bias, and we now have resources (Google, the blogosphere, talk radio, etc.) to check facts on our own when in doubt.

A terrific illustration of this came in the 60 minutes II piece regarding "shocking new documents" which someone "discovered" saying nasty things about Bush's National Guard service. If you're a Kerry supporter, you just sat back and cheered. If you're a Bush supporter... well you might have made your way to Powerline, where you discovered that these documents are very probably forgeries.

Why didn't 60 minutes look into this more carefully before airing the charges? The answer is pretty obvious. They wanted to believe it. Just like the Powerline guys did not.

Conservatives have by now become firmly convinced that most of the mainstream media - 60 Minutes very much included - are partisan leftists. We would never take the word of a 60 minutes report on its own face, trusting them to be their own fact checker.

And now we have the new media which makes it unnecessary. The "trust me, I'm with the professional media" genie is not going back in the bottle. Why would we - the news consumers - ever want it to?

The power of the old media turns out to be not quite as impressive as we once assumed. We tended to think that their research was more rigorous (and their professional reputation more precious to them) than has turned out to be the case. Those of us who considered them biased against our interests used to worry about how we could possibly compete with the professional research and resources of the big media.

Well, here is democracy in action. Blogging has turned thousands of news consumers into journalism hobbyists. Think what you will about the average blogger's journalistic quality, bloggers have definitely made it easier than ever to expose how arrogant and lazy so much of our Fourth Estate has become.

This seems to be huge news in some quarters. People like Jeff Greenfield don't seem to be able to fathom the implications of this.

Maybe its a generational thing, but my entire adult life I've assumed general sloppiness and laziness in the media, as well as assuming political bias on their part. An anecdote from my college days offers an almost too perfect illustration of how and why this perspective emerged. As Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up:

My alma mater is a rather large state school in Illinois. I happened to know the president of the college's Young Democrats - a friendly lad from a politically active Chicago-area family, as well as a certain reporter for our school paper - a fetching young woman who happened to be a journalism major. One day some sort of popular political speaker came to campus. Both of these friends were to attend, the Young Democrat president, because his group had invited the speaker, and the reporter to cover the event for the school paper. Well the reporter decided to go to a party that night instead, but hoped to get away with skipping the speech by borrowing the notes made by the YD president.

The next morning the YD President was puzzled to see his name appear in the byline as the author of the resulting article . And he was positively dismayed when the speaker threatened to sue him for libel. Seems the notes reflected a bit more what the YD president had wanted to hear than what the speaker had actually said. Which would have been no big deal, since these were just taken as private notes. But now - without his knowledge or consent - he had been credited with writing a newspaper article - because the actual reporter was too lazy to show up and take her own notes, and too cowardly to stand behind her second-hand account of the event (have to credit her survival instinct there though - how was she to know the notes would be so bad they'd cause a lawsuit?).

Well anyway, the whole thing caused a big blowup, and almost (but not quite) caused the journalism major to lose her coveted internship at a large Chicago newspaper. The Young Democrat president had to write a letter of explanation and apology to the newspaper to avoid the lawsuit. I don't recall the reporter having to admit to any fault at all publicly (she did in private - but not without a fight).

So anyway, let's just say my respect for the lions of journalism entering the ranks of our media wasn't terribly high.

And in a way, that's why blogging comes rather easily - to me and I presume many others. This isn't rocket science. We don't hold journalists in the kind of esteem many of them seem to think we do, so if we don't see them saying something we think needs saying, we'll do it ourselves.

Sure, it's only amateur journalism. But I'm also an amateur grocery bagger when I go shopping, an amateur taxi-driver when I need to take my wife and/or kids somewhere, and an amateur thespian when the mood hits me and time allows. And journalism is a lot closer in difficulty to those activities than it is to electrical engineering, or neuro-surgery (which, for the record, I would not attempt as an amateur). I feel free to dabble in journalism because it truly isn't all that difficult to do.

This is the new media environment Jeff Greenfield and a lot of others are missing. There is no news source held in such high esteem as to be above question, because the new news-consumer has no need for that kind of news source.

Just as this year's awful growing season makes me glad we no longer need to grow our own food or else starve come winter, this year's election makes me glad we no longer have to rely on the old media for our news, or else remain ignorant.

4 Comments:

Blogger TFB said...

Doug,

We have all read of late, many a story about the power of the blogosphere, but yours has to be one of the most enjoyable I have seen.
Bogus Gold is really a great read that needs to be bookmarked and blogrolled!

8:04 PM  
Blogger Cat Stephens said...

This is the most biased and unintelligent blog I've read in recent months. The integrity of the media as a whole is flawless as is John Kerry's record. The fact that Bush failed to serve honorably in the military and did not deserve the honorable discharge is the real issue. You obviously are blindly throwing blame at the journalists to deflect attention from your sorry candidate. With the apparent low level of intelligence you exhibit, I can only assume that you're Catholic too. Please do us all a favor and spend your free time doing laundry instead.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Dan Rather checking in above. Welcome aboard Dan!

10:34 AM  
Blogger Cat Stephens said...

I am honored that you would assume that I am the esteemed journalist, Dan Rather. He is my favorite journalist and any attempt to call his accuracy or profesionalism into question is highly offensive. Where elso can you find colour commentary with phrases such as "busting through the South like a tornado in a trailer park." That, my friend is an actual Ratherism.

11:01 AM  

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