Another Write-wing Conspirator

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Media Madness

Posted by The Curmudgeon on July 24, 2010

Why mainstream media sources are on the ropes

Some thirty years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a teacher. He’d recently chaperoned his students during a field trip, touring the operations of the local newspaper. He surprised me when he pointed out that what he’d found most interesting were the newswire reports lying around, enlightening me about a few stories I hadn’t heard. When I expressed dismay at how I’d somehow missed these little gems, he explained: “You didn’t miss anything. They were never printed.”

He then asked me if I knew the identity of the newspaper’s publisher. Editor-in-chief? News editor? Opinion page editor? Who they are—and their views?

I confessed that I had no idea.

He said: “You should. They decide what news you get—and the news you don’t get.”

Sobering thought, that.

I’d always taken pains to keep abreast of the news. Of course, back in those days my usual news sources consisted of one major newspaper (for a city of about a quarter-million), radio news broadcasts while driving (imparted during brief interruptions to music and advertising), and broadcast television news furnished by the three major networks, recently augmented by the then-fledgling CNN. And, of course, there were the larger news magazines (e.g., Time, Newsweek, and U.S.News and World Report). Internet news sources lay far in the future. “The web” didn’t yet exist. Personal computers, for that matter, were an extreme rarity—and didn’t have modems (there wasn’t anything out there to connect with, anyway).

I gave much consideration to what the teacher had said. I thought of stories that had languished — the My Lai massacre came to mind — simply because nobody considered them to be newsworthy. (For the too-young-to-remember…the My Lai story was initially ignored by all the major news outlets; it eventually came to light not owing to a dedicated journalist, but to a disgruntled soldier—who finally managed to attract interest in the story long after the fact.) I recalled a vignette of someone once giving Walter Cronkite a transcript of the previous evening’s entire CBS newscast pasted onto the front page of a newspaper; it didn’t even cover that one page completely—a graphic commentary if ever there was one.

I also wondered what else the local newspaper editor had deemed not worthy of passing on to his readers. What had the major wire services chosen to ignore—or bury? How did the major broadcast news executives decide which stories to bombard us with during the thirty precious minutes (minus advertising time) they alloted to their evening broadcasts? What criteria did they use in making these decisions?

Since then, the world of news-reporting has changed dramatically. The “major” television networks have seen their news bureaus steadily lose market share to Fox News, while the explosion of web news sources and the blogosphere have placed a severe strain on even old, storied publishing empires.

Perhaps with that in mind, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger recently advanced the sensationally idiotic idea that the federal government should help fund troubled news organizations—and, implicitly, to regulate them.

The reader might blanch at my characterization, wondering what could possibly be wrong with government controlling the news; after all, it worked so well for Hitler, Communist China, the former Soviet Union, and North Korea. The ruling clerics in Iran no doubt swear by the idea. Hugo Chavez has embraced it.

One can almost feel the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves, aghast at the mere notion of blithely surrendering hard-won freedoms that they and generations of their successors fought to preserve—particularly given that it involves those who traditionally have so ardently cloaked themselves in the First Amendment for protection.

Set aside for the moment the temptation to merely ask whether Bollinger is out of his mind, and consider how the news organizations came to find themselves in their current state; while he’s partly correct in attributing the media establishment’s woes to the advent of internet news sources, the wounds are mostly self-inflicted.

The oligopoly enjoyed until only a few years ago by the established media giants couldn’t have been broken simply by a few upstart news sources elbowing them aside; they were all too big and too powerful for that to happen. Had the public at large been content with the services provided by the existing news giants, there would have been no motivation to seek other sources. The big news sources themselves drove away their own audience as growing numbers of readers and viewers became increasingly dissatisfied with a perceived (and steadily worsening) liberal bias in the news being presented (or not presented). Those who abandoned the “mainstream media” sources in droves, however, didn’t simply unplug altogether; as the established news giants have seen their influence decline, Fox and other sources have seen the ranks of their followers swell commensurately.

Reporters have long taken refuge in the old saw that “We don’t make the news; we just report it” in the face of criticism; given that they’ve become increasingly fond of selecting what to report and how it’s reported, this disingenuous claim is more ludicrous now than ever before. If thirty minutes of enduring the evening news isn’t enough to convince the skeptics, the ongoing revelations of groupthink news-planning via the JournoList listserv certainly should raise concerns. There’s mounting evidence of widespread collusion to not only abdicate the media’s traditional role of equally vetting Presidential candidates, but to collectively become Barack Hussein Obama’s most devoted advocate—and launch a concerted attack against his opponent’s running mate. More recently, the squelching of the story about voter intimidation by New Black Panther Party goons in Philadelphia (and elsewhere, as it’s now been revealed) was so egregious that even The Washington Post‘s own ombudsman took the newspaper to task over the matter. Throughout CBS News commentator Bob Schieffer’s recent interview with Attorney General Eric Holder, he failed to address the issue. Schieffer’s explanation? He’d been on vacation and hadn’t heard about the story.

Great. Schieffer’s on vacation, and the rest of establishment media’s been out to lunch the past few decades.

…and now Bollinger expresses his heartfelt concern that the federal government’s failing to prop-up the establishment media would result in our not getting the news we should have—as if establishment media has already been providing us with such news. (Indeed, had they done so all along — which is how they became established — they wouldn’t be dining at the rear nipple today.) Bottom line? He’s urging the government to subsidize establishment media’s continued pursuit of what got it into trouble in the first place—under the guise of keeping us informed.

His concerns are misplaced, at best. As the need — or market — developed owing to establishment media’s shortcomings, others ably filled the void. Having largely supplanted the “major” networks’ news broadcasts, Fox News is doing quite well, in fact—as are numerous web-based organizations.

Are these emerging media forces perfect? Hardly. Notwithstanding Fox’s claims of “fair and balanced” reporting, some perceive a conservative slant to its presentations. I tend to agree—but hasten to add that any such tilt in no way approaches the degree of liberal bias found within the media establishment. Moreover, Fox’s coverage at least seems to be more extensive; though it clearly emphasizes certain stories, it doesn’t seem to be filtering-out as much as its competitors. Similarly, web sources like The Drudge Report, NewsBusters, PajamasMedia, and the Media Research Center have developed their own prodigious followings.

They’re doing what the establishment media mainstays did to get established, but later eschewed as they became more politicized: informing the public—and they are in no need of a government bail-out.

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