TCS Daily

Elections and the New Media

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 5, 2004 12:00 AM

It was a make-or-break election for the Old Media. And they broke.

Back in January, I noticed a sudden shift in tone on the part of many news outlets -- from vague anti-Bush bias to very intense anti-Bush bias and even misquoting. It only got worse as the elections approached. From the hyping of Abu Ghraib (a real problem, but not emblematic of the war, except in the press coverage) to the relentless promotion of a series of anti-Bush documentaries, books, and television programs, to more serious matters like CBS's reckless use of forged documents as part of an attempted hit-piece on President Bush's National Guard service, or the bogus missing-explosives story timed for the weekend before the election, the Old Media hit a fever pitch of manipulation intended to deliver the election for the Democrats. They were supposed to deliver fifteen percent of the vote.

But they failed. They failed because they don't have the power that they used to have. And they don't have the power that they used to have, well, for several reasons:

The first is that they've lost their credibility. Their Bush-hatred was so palpable, and so poorly concealed, that even accurate stories reflecting badly on the Administration lost much of their sting because of the unmistakable glee with which they were presented. Add to that the many stories that turned out badly, and the sputtering how-dare-you-question-us response when they were challenged, and there's not a lot left.

The second, which goes closely with the first, is that there are alternatives. Back in what news people consider the Golden Age -- the 1950s and 1960s -- there were few alternatives to the three big television networks and local monopoly papers. If they didn't report something, it wasn't news. If they did report something, even if their reporting was wrong or dishonest, most people believed it, and few people got the other side of the story. That's not true anymore. Talk radio, cable news channels, and the Internet have opened up the conversation and allowed for criticism. This has made the bias, and the inaccuracy, and the outright manipulation in the Old Media easier to spot.

As Peggy Noonan writes

"Who was the biggest loser of the 2004 election? It is easy to say Mr. Kerry: he was a poor candidate with a poor campaign. But I do think the biggest loser was the mainstream media, the famous MSM, the initials that became popular in this election cycle. Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief -- CBS and the fabricated Bush National Guard documents, the New York Times and bombgate, CBS's "60 Minutes" attempting to coordinate the breaking of bombgate on the Sunday before the election -- the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down. It was to me a great historical development in the history of politics in America. It was Agincourt. It was the yeomen of King Harry taking down the French aristocracy with new technology and rough guts. God bless the pajama-clad yeomen of America. Some day, when America is hit again, and lines go down, and media are hard to get, these bloggers and site runners and independent Internetters of all sorts will find a way to file, and get their word out, and it will be part of the saving of our country."

Used to having a one-way megaphone, the Old Media folks aren't very happy with this turn of events -- just watch this video of Dan Rather talking about the "blogging machine" in a way that makes clear just how unhappy, yet clueless, he is -- but it's not going to get better for them. If Kerry had won, and if Democrats had taken Congress, I think we might have seen legislation designed to hinder independent journalism. That's not likely to happen now, and the growth of technology, with lower costs for bandwidth, computers, and digital cameras, is likely to accelerate the growth of independent media.

The third, and perhaps most significant, reason for Old Media's declining influence is that the ability of Old Media to create a phony consensus -- which I've written about here before in terms of what political scientists call "preference falsification" -- has been diminished, as the result of factors 1 and 2 above. It's not completely gone, and in fact some people are speculating that this played a role in the exit polls' inaccuracy:

"People understand what MSM considers politically incorrect. They assume that pollsters are part of the liberal media, so they often keep their conservative views to themselves. The anti-Bush hatred and violence in this election managed to turn support for the president into almost as much of a taboo as, say, opposition to affirmative action. Given that, exit polls probably undercounted support for the president." (Natalie Solent suggests that this happens in Britain, too).

But getting people to lie to pollsters isn't enough. What the Big Media have lost is the ability to make people dismiss out of hand ideas that haven't been vetted by the Powers That Be. They've lost the ability to set the agenda in both a positive and a negative sense, to decide which ideas, and which stories, are on the table, and which are not.

What does this mean? It means that this election probably marked a turning point in media power, and -- as alternative media continue to grow -- that the power of the institutional media to shape the debate will be much weaker next time around. As I wrote a while back, this will benefit the Republicans in the near term, at least:

"[S]o long as the mainstream media are lazy, and biased -- and strongly in favor of a Democrat -- the fact-checking and media-bypassing power of the blogosphere is likely to disproportionately favor Republicans. That's not so much a reflection on blogs, alas, as it is a reflection on big media."

And on the reasons for its decline.


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