TCS Daily


By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

A few weeks ago, I suggested that we might have reached a tipping point, after which the influence of Big Media would rapidly decline.

"Big deal," you may have thought. "Techno-avant-garde types like Reynolds are always waving their hands and talking about tipping points."

True enough. But now David Gergen, who is pretty much the standard measurement unit for conventional wisdom, is saying something similar. Here's what Gergen said on Hardball Monday night:

        GERGEN: But, even so, Chris, there is a larger issue about American 
        journalism that I worry deeply about. And sympathetic as I am to people who 
        are trying to get out there and do a good job -- and I know a lot of the 
        people at "Newsweek," as you do. And they're good folks. But they made 
        a terrible blunder here.

        And, in this case, they went with a single source, with an unnamed, 
        anonymous single source, on something which is extraordinarily sensitive. 
        And they blew it. . . .

        MATTHEWS: David Gergen, the consequences to journalism here, bottom line.

        GERGEN: Chris, it strikes me that this might be one of those famous 
        tipping points, that, when you have a series of blunders, scandals, 
        what have you, in the mainstream media, that, at a certain point, the press 
        gets - the public gets fed up.

        And because so many people died here as a consequence of this, the 
        publication, I think there's a lot of anger out there. You can see it in the 

        MATTHEWS: Yes.

        GERGEN: You can see it in the conversation today. I think the public may 
        have just had enough.

The blogs have certainly been all over this story, with the tagline "Newsweek lied, people died." And while that tagline may be a trifle unfair, there's no question that Newsweek took it seriously, and that Newsweek's retraction happened a lot faster than it would have a few years ago. In fact, it seems clear that Newsweek's speed had a lot to do with earlier incidents:

        In the interview, Mr. Whitaker contrasted his action with that of CBS News 
        when it refused to back down immediately last year from a report that raised 
        questions about President Bush's National Guard service.

        "Clearly it became a problem for CBS because people thought they weren't 
        acknowledging that they screwed up," Mr. Whitaker said.

        He continued: "Unlike CBS, we felt we were being extremely forthcoming 
        by publishing all the details and publishing the Pentagon's denials and saying 
        we committed an error. But then it seemed that people felt like we weren't 
        apologizing. In order for people to understand we had made an error, we 
        had to say 'retraction' because that's the word they were looking for."

So it seems that the Goliaths have learned to respect the "army of Davids" I mentioned in my earlier piece. That's probably a good sign.

Some people have likened the Big Media (or "legacy media" as they're sometimes called) to dinosaurs. But Newsweek's rapid response suggests that they're capable of learning and adapting, at least in terms of their response to journalistic screwups. The bigger question, of course, will be whether they're capable of changing not just their response to reporting gone bad, but their style of reporting.

Let's hope so. Tipping points come in a variety of forms. In some of them, the tippees survive and flourish. In others they become extinct. This still has a chance to be one of the former, rather than one of the latter -- but with even David Gergen chiming in, there seems little room for doubt that the tipping point is upon us. Editors and publishers take heed.



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