Sunday, November 14, 2004

Are 'Mainstream' Media Ignored and Irrelevant?

Are Mainstream Media Ignored And Irrelevant?
Amid Criticism Of Election Coverage, An Assessment Of The New Relationship Between Politician And Press
Courant Staff Writer
November 12 2004

A Tom Toles cartoon published in Monday's Washington Post depicts President Bush looking down at the White House, the Supreme Court and the GOP-dominated Senate and House, asking, "NOW who do we blame?"

The answer, in the cartoon's right-hand corner, is "We'll always have Clinton," but Toles could just as easily have added, "and the media."

Fairly or not, this past year has been a rough one for the nation's so-called mainstream media.

Buffeted by criticism from the political right and left, dissected by partisans in the Internet blog world and serving increasingly skeptical audiences, the traditional media of daily newspapers and network television are sorting out what went right, what went wrong and what has fundamentally changed.

"It's like some gigantic farm animal is being attacked by thousands of insects," National Journal columnist William Powers said this week. "There is so much change happening, and everyone feels a little lost and disoriented."

Mainstream (or "establishment") media are biased, liberal or corporate and fear asking tough questions, critics say. They ignore stories, fail to challenge conventional wisdom and serve warmed-over dishes of he said/she said. They're slow and lazy and on the road to irrelevancy.

Adam Nagourney of the New York Times views the avalanche of criticism as part of a broader tearing-down of American institutions, coupled with the emergence of the Internet and other new ways to communicate.

There is difficulty, he said, in wanting to be sensitive to criticism but having to sift between "legitimate criticism, which is mixed in with ad hominem attacks."

Reporters like Los Angeles Times political columnist Ron Brownstein have heard the criticisms over the months of the bitterly fought presidential campaign and beg to differ.

There was an "incredible cacophony coming out of the campaigns and the 527s," the new special-interest groups allowed to raise and spend unlimited money, Brownstein said. "And by and large I think we did a reasonable job.

"I really feel that the press was tested this year in the intensity of the attacks and the money spent. I'm not in a high flagellation mode."

When, for example, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, one of the new 527s, broadcast ads attacking Democrat John Kerry's Vietnam service, major newspapers very quickly published detailed accounts undermining the claims, Brownstein said.

"But the problem is, of course, you may disprove something once, and it just keeps going," he said, arguing that there is a mistaken assumption among many news consumers that the press can drive political discussion.

"The candidates decide the discussion," Brownstein said. "The press is never going to be the opposition party. The opposition party is going to be the opposition party."

USA Today White House reporter Richard Benedetto said he doesn't know "where the whole concept of we, the media, as referees came from. I'm not sure it's one of our primary roles.

"It's more incumbent on the campaigns to defend themselves against scurrilous charges than for us to do it."

But in the wake of the election, some press critics, most notably PressThink's Jay Rosen, are arguing for a more partisan mainstream press.

"The contraption that journalists inherited worked very well for a long period of time," Rosen said this week. "But it's just been overwhelmed and superseded by events."

The working pieces of that old "contraption," he says, include objectivity, neutrality, the role of watchdog and "a lot of different purposes and claims, a set of instruction for relating to the world and other people."

He says the Bush administration has effectively stripped the mainstream press - and in particular the White House press corps - of its relevancy by largely ignoring it and delivering its message through other media.

Previously, "the White House press and the president needed each other," Rosen said. "The relationship was assumed to be of common interest."

"What's different about Bush is that he says, `What relationship?'" Rosen said. "The dependence that the president once had on the news machinery as a whole for getting his message out has basically evaporated."

Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, also argues that the events of 9/11 and the subsequent "war on terror" have shifted people's views on how much information they are willing NOT to know in the interest of catching terrorists.

"We're in a different world now," he said. "The rulebook does not have rules for the situation that journalists are in now, and there's a tremendous pressure to pretend that there are.

"I think journalism has to become more political because it's been politicized."

Brownstein agrees with Rosen that the Bush administration has altered the historic relationship between politician and press.

"Bush more than any other president ever has felt that he does not need the traditional mainstream media to reach his voters," he said. "That is an important change."

But he cautions that the shift can be overstated: "They still care when the networks and print press put out something they don't like."

And Brownstein does not buy the theory that the mainstream press needs to become more partisan to survive and remain relevant.

"I think the reality is that red and blue Americans trust different sources of media - and I can't think of one that has trust across both," he said. "We are drifting into an era, perhaps like the 19th century, where partisans gravitate toward different media for news."

"I don't think that changes the responsibilities of the mainstream press," he said. "There are people who are not ideologically locked into either, and they don't want a highly partisan press."

Says Benedetto, "The elusive goal of objectivity should remain, especially for newspapers."

Mainstream reporters have, however, been moving away from what Nagourney calls "false equivalents" - producing stories that give equal weight to the claims of both sides, even when one may be demonstrably inaccurate.

"There has been a realization among reporters, certainly me, to move away from false equivalency," he said. "A newspaper needs to help people understand, and if [one candidate] is qualitatively worse, we ought to say it."

In the end, though there are no easy answers, the self-examination is helpful, said Powers of the National Journal.

"There have been endless moments of silliness and mistakes and habits that the media fall into every four years, he said. "We've also been through a period of pretty shocking media scandals, and media people and consumers feel there is some problem that needs to be resolved."

"The establishment media earned respect by getting it right a lot of the time, but maybe not as often as they thought they did," Powers said. "A lot of the cracks are being revealed now, more quickly and more dramatically."

But, noting that the presidential debates were substantive and that a record number of people went to vote, the mainstream media have earned a right to pat themselves on the back amid all the kvetching.

"There is a place for rants and messy noise," Powers said, "but there will also always be a place for someone trying to be the honest broker."