The Washington Press Corpse? a Journalist Responds

One of those pesky mystery reporters who sometimes appears here was conscripted responded to my post on the Daou Challenge:
I think Daou has a good general point, and you as well have some good points. I must say, though, I get tired of some of the nitpicking criticism out there, when there could be good, harmless explanations.

For instance, the alleged CBS story [one of Daou's examples] about the Secret Service interference after the Cheney shooting that never aired. Perhaps it never aired because it had weak sourcing or was contradicted by other evidence. Anybody think of that? That's the most common reason why news organizations pull breaking stories.Whatever happened to benefit of the doubt? He seems too sensitive. For instance, pointing out headlines from Bush's State of the Union that he think gave Bush too much credit. Headlines by their nature leave out nuances like the ones he's mentioning. The news was that an ex-oil man says the country is addicted to oil and needs to change. Several media outlets pointed out either right away or within a day or two that this was a fairly hollow challenge. Why isn't he highlighting those stories as examples of the media doing their job right?

I worry there's a new conventional wisdom forming that liberals are the real victims of media bias now. I don't think this is true any more than I think there was any pervasive liberal bias in the past. The result, unfortunately, is routine and often irrational distrust of large news organizations from all sides. I think that's dangerous.

Let me introduce a few caveats. Serious journalism is a shrinking business. There are only a few major newspapers and small number of magazines that engage in it day in day out. The big TV networks still do some decent work, but the quality of coverage has been declining for years. The 24-hour cable competition has edged out news coverage in favor of punditry, which overall has a conservative bent. The serious news coverage that the 24-hour channels still do is subordinated to the latest shark attack and missing white girls in Aruba. Entertainment coverage also routinely trumps serious reporting.

We also have now a conservative media -- talk radio, Fox News, right-wing bloggers, political magazines, Christian news organizations -- that has matured into a powerful force in today's information competition, unmatched, unless you count Air America and a few blogs and political magazines, by a literal counterweight. That is changing. I predict in 10 years, the media is going to be a three-headed beast. Conservative media, liberal media, and more traditional non-partisan media increasingly henpecked and squeezed. Consumers will feel they're getting the real news from their chosen echo chamber and will distrust news that tries to address both sides of issues. It could go further with the US turning into Italy with the state controlling certain media organizations. Not a healthy development.

And as I've said before, what liberal bias may have infected some news coverage in the 70s and 80s has largely disappeared. You don't for instance see stories that off-handedly dismiss supply side economics as you might have seen once. You don't see apologist stories about the great economic progress in Cuba and the Soviet Union. You don't see stories that make it seem like any Republican presidential candidate is one step from starting a nuclear war.

I can tell you reporters don't spend their days trying to figure out ways to slant stories ideologically. I do think that the liberal bias drumbeat has led some journalists to make sure that if they have a story critical of Republican that they also need to throw in some Democrats, and sometimes this leads to lazy, knee-jerk "pox on both houses" reporting. I think this may explain some of what Daou is highlightling.

There has always been lazy reporting -- read some old newspaper sometime and you'll see -- but now the Internet makes it easier to point out those instances and amplify them 1000-fold. I think overall that's good. It leads to more careful work. But it also erodes trust in the news media. I worry that we may end up doing irreparable damage in the end.

Also, I think Daou's critique gives short shrift to some truly exceptional reporting in the past year: NSA spy story, various terrorism stories, coverage of the cracking up of the military, paying for stories in Iraq, clandestine prisons in Eastern Europe, great Katrina exposes, wonderful explanations of the Abramoff scandal, and the list goes one. And a time when prosecutors are increasingly going after journalists who bring this stuff to light! These stories have, rightly put the Bush administration in a bad light. Daou astutely notes that critical coverage alone is no proof of bias. But I think the overwhelmingly negative weight of all this news, however, casts doubt on his central premise that the bias pendulum is swinging the other way.

And liberal bias has not disappeared, it's just morphed into more of a cultural bias. Nicholas Kristof has written about this insightfully. I see it in the coverage of evangelicals. It's there in the NY Times running hundreds of relatively sympathetic stories about gay marriage and very little highlighting the many Americans who are uncomfortable with the idea. It's in ignoring stories about the great trouble many parents face in finding TV their children can watch. I think this is starting to change. Major organizations are doing much better work than they have in the past on religion in America and all its permutations. But there's more to be done.

Rob, I think your point about media missing big stories is more on point that Daou's. But I would put it a little differently.

All the stuff you mentioned, perhaps with a couple of exceptions, has been reported by at least a couple of major organizations in this country. What hasn't happened is these stories haven't caught fire and received the kind of red ball treatment that say the Valerie Plame case or the NSA spying case has. So the stories are not really missing, but they have not reached critical mass.

Frankly, I don't know why some stories become covered by everybody and others don't. News unfortunately has a pack mentality. So if the NY Times, the Washington Post or NPR lead with something many other organizations follow. What needs to happen is more organizations blazing their own paths and not playing follow the leader. That would require more money and commitment than many of these profit-oriented organizations are willing to put forward.

Another problem with the stories you mentioned is that the media reflexively recoils from things that look they might be conspiracy-mongering. That leads to some self censorship. So stories that Republicans may have pulled some fast ones to win Ohio in 2004 get downplayed lest reporters seem like Kennedy assassination nuts. I think every story should be looked at on its own merits. While some of what you talk about may not ultimately prove a huge deal, some of it may. Who would have thought a few years ago that the United States would advocate torture and no-limits spying on its own citizens?

This is kind of rambling, but those are my thoughts.
Next, I'll post my reply and then his. No, really, I will.

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