The Rathergate Report is a watershed event in American journalism not because it changes things on its own but because it makes unavoidably clear a change that has already occurred. And that is that the mainstream media’s monopoly on information is over. That is, the monopoly enjoyed by three big networks, a half dozen big newspapers and a handful of weekly magazines from roughly 1950 to 2000 is done and gone, and something else is taking its place. That would be a media cacophony. But a cacophony in which the truth has a greater chance of making itself clearly heard.
Is it annoying that the panel that issued the report did not find liberal bias in the preparation and airing of the Bush National Guard story? Yes, but only that. It’s not as if anyone has to be told. I hate to be cynical, and this is cynical, but the panel that produced the report was not being paid by CBS to find liberal bias. It was being paid to do the anatomy of a failure with emphasis on who did what wrong.
It found fault with the anchorman, the producer and their overseers, a conclusion CBS likely welcomed because CBS has wanted to remove Dan Rather for a long time because of low ratings. Rathergate weakened his position, and CBS moved. Firing the producers and overseers allows them to say We’ve turned the page, paid a price and put the story behind us. Also, if the report was to be taken seriously by the rest of the mainstream media it could not allege liberal bias. The MSM were not going to do headlines saying, “We’ve been busted!”
Finally, one somehow gets the impression the writers of the Report thought proof of bias would be found in memos saying, “Comrades, we move against the imperialistic Bush Regime at 0800.” Which is not exactly how it works. In any case those memos were not found. But maybe the writers of the report thought someone else would write about the whole sticky issue of bias. Like bloggers, who the report tells us have “a conservative agenda.” That will surprise Duncan “Atrios” Black and Josh Marshall, but let it go.
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Of the commentary that followed the report, the most interesting so far has been Howard Fineman’s essay on MSNBC.com. Mr. Fineman, a fluid writer who is likely aware of his own biases—I have wondered if he doesn’t track them to make sure they are in line with the biases of Newsweek and MSNBC, which employ him—is a hardworking journalistic veteran who entered the MSM when it was at its zenith, in the 1970s. One might say he is the platonic ideal of MSMness. Mr. Fineman writes that the Rathergate report has left the MSM damaged and reeling, its hegemony a thing of the past. All true. In his roll call of responsibility he names first “George Bush’s Republican Party,” but that is the reflex of a certain mindset and not true. Mr. Bush and the GOP had nothing to do with what has happened to the MSM, which is not to say they are not happy it’s been deeply and deservedly wounded.
Mr. Fineman asserts that the MSM came into existence after World War II, which is essentially true, but goes on to claim that it came into existence as the result of the fact that “a temporary moderate consensus came to govern the country.” Please. America was a political battleground in those days, fighting over everything from McCarthyism to the true nature of communism to the proper role of government to Vietnam. The MSM didn’t come into existence because of a brief period of political comity. The MSM rose because it had a monopoly. And it fell because it lost that monopoly.
Let me repeat that: The MSM rose because it had a monopoly on information. The networks, newspapers and magazines were a Liberal Monolith. In one of his “Making of the President” books the liberal but ingenuous Teddy White famously said of 57th Street in Manhattan that when he stood there he was within a stone’s throw of all the offices in which all of American media was busily churning out its vision of The News. Churning it out were a relatively small group of a few hundred liberals who worked and mostly lived on an island off the continent; they told that continent not only what it should be thinking about but how it should be thinking of it. (I think the New York Times unconsciously echoes this old assumption in their television commercials in which an earnest, graying, upscale dunderhead says the New York Times surrounds a story and gives him new ways to think about it. Doesn’t it just?)
But in the past decade the liberals lost their monopoly. What broke it? We all know. Rush Limbaugh did, cable news did, the antimonolith journalists who rose with Reagan did, the internet did, technology did, talk radio did, Fox News did, the Washington Times did. When the people of America got options, they took them. Conservative arguments rose, and liberal hegemony fell.
All this has been said before but this can’t be said enough: The biggest improvement in the flow of information in America in our lifetimes is that no single group controls the news anymore.
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You can complain now, and your complaints can both register and have an impact on the story, as happened with bloggers and Rathergate. You can be a part of the story if you find and uncover new information. You can create the story, as bloggers did in the Trent Lott scandal. American journalism is no longer a castle, and you are no longer the serf who cannot breach its walls. The castle doors have been forced open. Other voices have access. Bloggers for instance don’t just walk in and out, they have offices in the castle walls.
Is there a difference between the bloggers and the MSM journalists? Yes. But it is not that they are untrained eccentrics home in their pajamas. (Half the writers for the Sunday New York Times are eccentrics home in their pajamas.) It is that they are independent and allowed to think their own thoughts. It is that they have autonomy and can assign themselves stories, and determine on their own the length and placement of stories. And it is that they are by and large as individuals more interesting than most MSM reporters.
Remember the movie “Broadcast News”? The bland young reporter played by William Hurt who yearned to be a star and a member of the establishment would be a major network anchor or producer now, his hair gone a distinguished gray. The character played by Albert Brooks—the bright, mischievous and ultimately more talented journalist—would be a blogger now.
Now anyone can take to the parapet and announce the news. This will make for a certain amount of confusion. But better that than one-party rule and one-party thought. Only 20 years ago, when you were enraged at what you felt was the unfairness of a story, or a bias on the part of the storyteller, you could do this about it: nothing. You could write a letter.
When I worked at CBS a generation ago I used to receive those letters. Sometimes we read them, and sometimes we answered them, but not always. Now if you see such a report and are enraged you can do something about it: You can argue in public on a blog or on TV, you can put forth information that counters the information in the report. You can have a voice. You can change the story. You can bring down a news division. Is this improvement? Oh yes it is.
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Some think bloggers and internet writers of all sorts are like the 19th century pamphleteers who made American politics livelier and more vigorous by lambasting the other team in full-throated broadsides. Actually, I’ve said that. And there are similarities. But it should be noted that the pamphleteers were heavy on screeds and colorfully damning the foe. The most successful bloggers aren’t bringing bluster to the debate, they’re bringing facts—font sizes, full quotes, etc. They’re bringing facts and points of view on those facts that the MSM before this could ignore, and did ignore. They’re bringing a lot to the debate, and changing the debate by what they bring. They’re doing what excellent reporters would do.
They will no doubt continue to be the force in 2005 that they have been the past few years. Meantime the MSM will not disappear. But it will evolve. Some media organs—Newsweek, Time, the New York Times—will likely use the changing environment as license to be what they are: liberal, only more so. Interestingly they have begun to use Fox News Channel as their rationale. We used to be unbiased but then Fox came along with its conservative propaganda so now just to be fair and compete we’re going liberal.
I don’t see why anyone should mind this. A world where National Review is defined as conservative and Newsweek defined as liberal would be a better world, for it would be a more truthful one. Everyone gets labeled, tagged and defined, no one hides an agenda, the audience gets to listen, consider, weigh and allow for biases. A journalistic world where people declare where they stand is a better one.
Networks, on the other hand, may try harder to play it down the middle, and that would be wise. The days when they could sell a one-party point of view is over. No one is buying now because no one is forced to buy. But everyone will buy the networks when they sell what they’re really good at, which is covering real news as it happens. Tsunamis, speeches, trials—events. Real and actual news. They are really good at that. And there is a market for it. And that market isn’t over.