TCS Daily


A Media Meltdown?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Though it's looking less likely than it was a few weeks ago, John Kerry could still pull off a win in this presidential election. But there's already one clear loser: the so-called "mainstream media" of network television and major newspapers. Whoever winds up in the White House next year, the position of these traditional media outlets (or "legacy media" as some call them) continues to decline.

That decline is partly technological in origin. Monopolistic or oligopolistic newspapers and broadcast outlets were the result of technology: economies of scale and scope that rewarded consolidation and led to virtually no competition among newspapers and very little among broadcasters. Now that's changing, as alternative outlets like talk radio, cable television, and, especially, the Internet, have almost completely removed the traditional barriers to entry and allowed competition.

But the loss of those barriers isn't the biggest problem faced by the mainstream media. The biggest problem is that, like most monopolists, they've spent so many years enjoying their position and not worrying about quality that they're left floundering now that competition is exposing their faults. Like the folks at GM who couldn't understand why people were buying Toyotas all of a sudden back in the 1970s, today's Big Media folks are shocked to see ratings and circulation numbers falling while readership for Internet sites skyrockets. And, like the auto executives, they're even starting to mumble about the need for protection.

But it won't work, of course. And -- much like the release of the Chevrolet Vega, the Ford Fairmont, or the AMC Pacer -- the press's coverage of the 2004 presidential election has revealed an industry in deep trouble. One problem is that even the pretense of evenhandedness has vanished, as members of the press -- who increasingly share the same left-leaning political views and who increasingly live in what Mickey Kaus calls the press "cocoon" -- have let their bias show. In an admirable display of forthrightness, Newsweek's Evan Thomas remarked:

"There's one other base here, the media. Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win and I think they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards I'm talking about the establishment media, not Fox. They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points."

Hmm. A 15-point margin kind of makes a mockery of "democracy" doesn't it? And we were worried about a few hanging chads?

As Debra Saunders remarked on CNN's Reliable Sources over the weekend, there's a double standard in election coverage. Why?:

SAUNDERS: I am suggesting a double standard.

KURTZ: Why do you think that is?

SAUNDERS: I think that most journalists support John Kerry.

KURTZ: You really think that that's the reason?

SAUNDERS: Yes, I do. I work for "The San Francisco Chronicle." I've been in journalism for many years. And most people...

KURTZ: So you believe that most journalists want John Kerry to win, and therefore are asking tougher questions of the president and giving Kerry an easier ride for ideological reasons? That's a pretty serious charge.

Yes it is -- and it's also rather obviously true. Then there was this admission from ABC's The Note:

"Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections.

"They include, but are not limited to, a near-universal shared sense that liberal political positions on social issues like gun control, homosexuality, abortion, and religion are the default, while more conservative positions are "conservative positions." ...

"The press, by and large, does not accept President Bush's justifications for the Iraq war -- in any of its WMD, imminent threat, or evil-doer formulations. It does not understand how educated, sensible people could possibly be wary of multilateral institutions or friendly, sophisticated European allies.

"It does not accept the proposition that the Bush tax cuts helped the economy by stimulating summer spending.

"It remains fixated on the unemployment rate. ... The worldview of the dominant media can be seen in every frame of video and every print word choice that is currently being produced about the presidential race."

This has become increasingly obvious as, even without these open admissions, the day to day coverage makes it more and more apparent, especially to those who have access to other sources of information -- which, nowadays, almost everyone does. That's caused the press to lose whatever market value its purported neutrality brought it.

But the real problem here, to paraphrase a Massachusetts politician who ran for President a few elections back, is not ideology, but competence.

The press's neutrality has been revealed as a fiction. That might not matter if they were still better at what they did than anyone else. After all, what about all the fact-checking, the professionalism, the editors meticulously ensuring fairness and accuracy?

Yeah. What about 'em? It's tempting to point to Jayson Blair, or any of the other media scandals of the past couple of years. (Or, for that matter, to Walter Duranty). But the problem goes even deeper than that. Beyond these major scandals, a combination of laziness, bias, and complacency haunts reporting on all sorts of subjects.

The latest example has to do with the controversy over John Kerry's claims to have been in Cambodia on Christmas Day, 1968. He wasn't, as even his campaign has admitted now. But major media ignored this story for weeks, even as bloggers and others were researching and publishing.

As Jonathan Last notes:

"There are many reasons why the mainstream media don't like the Swift boat story, but chief among them is that they've been strong-armed into covering it by the "new" media: talk-radio, cable television, and Internet blogs. ...

"Talk-radio and the blog world covered the Cambodia story obsessively.

"They reported on border crossings during Vietnam and the differences between Swift boats and PBRs. They also found two other instances of Kerry's talking about his Christmas in Cambodia. Spurred on by the blogs, Fox led the August 9 Special Report with a Carl Cameron story on Kerry's Cambodia discrepancy.

"All the while, traditional print and broadcast media tried hard to ignore the story--even as Kerry officially changed his position on his presence in Cambodia. Then on August 19, Kerry went public with his counter assault against Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and suddenly the story was news. The numbers are fairly striking: Before August 19, the New York Times and Washington Post had each mentioned Swift Boat Veterans for Truth just 8 times; the Los Angeles Times 7 times; the Boston Globe 4 times. The broadcast networks did far less. According to the indefatigable Media Research Center, before Kerry went public, ABC, CBS, and NBC together had done a total of 9 stories on the Swifties. For comparison, as of August 19 these networks had done 75 stories on the accusation that Bush had been AWOL from the National Guard.

"After Kerry, the deluge."

And even after Kerry, the quality of the coverage was poor, often substituting hand-waving for facts. Last provides plenty of examples, but this piece by Jim Boyd of the Star-Tribune, attacking two bloggers from Power Line does an especially good job of capturing the tone -- lots of complaints about "smears," but few facts. The two bloggers, John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson, replied:

"We wrote that the Kerry campaign has retracted Kerry's oft-told tale of being in Cambodia on Christmas 1968. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that there is no record of John Kerry being in Cambodia in December 1968, or at any other time. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that Kerry's commanding officers have denied that he was ever sent into Cambodia. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that not a single crewman who ever served with Kerry has supported Kerry's claim to have been in Cambodia, and several crewmen have denied that their boat was ever in Cambodia. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that there is no record of Swift boats being used for clandestine missions as claimed by Kerry. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that Swift boats were unsuited for such secret missions, given their large size and noise. Boyd did not dispute this.

"Gosh, for fraudulent smear artists, we seem to be doing pretty well.

Why did Hinderaker and Johnson do so well? Perhaps because they have actual skills. As Hugh Hewitt observes:

"I have been both a lawyer/law professor for two decades and a television/radio/print journalist for 15 years of those 20. It takes a great deal more intelligence and discipline to be the former than to be the latter, which is why the former usually pays a lot more than the latter. It is no surprise to me, then, when lawyers/law professors like those at Powerline and Instapundit prove to be far more adept at exposing the "Christmas-in-Cambodia" lie and other Kerry absurdities than old-school journalists. The big advantage is in research skills, of course, and in an eye for inconsistencies which make or break cases and arguments."

Or as Hinderaker himself wrote:

"A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons, because they lack the specialized training and experience necessary for that field. But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can't? Nothing. Generally speaking, they don't know any more about primary data and raw sources of information than we do-- often less. Their general knowledge is often inadequate. Their superior resources should allow them to carry out investigations far beyond what we amateurs can do. But the reality is that the mainstream media rarely use those resources. Too many journalists are bored, biased and lazy."

The press has been in the tank for Kerry to a degree that is, I think, without precedent in recent history. But it's now, as another law professor/blogger, Ann Althouse, notes, beginning to change its tune: "The media are looking ahead and imagining how the history of the 2004 presidential campaign will read and how their performance will measure up."

I think that's right. But while the media's willingness to side with Kerry has been striking, it's also like the proverbial thirteenth chime of the clock -- not only wrong itself, but calling into question everything that came before. The loss of credibility that has come with that, coupled with the press's poor performance on all sorts of topics (don't these people know how to use Google? don't they realize that we do?) will be a long-lasting blow.

The media barons should be worried. The real problem is that to succeed in a business, you have to be better than your competitors at giving people what they want or need. The mainstream media needs to ask itself whether it's capable of doing that -- and, if not, how it needs to change.


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