February 27, 2010
The Internet and the AgoraBy G. Murphy Donovan
The blogosphere seems to be flushing the mainstream downstream. The blowback is venomous and not a pretty sight. Media stars, especially, are fighting a vicious rearguard action against the inevitable. The rise of the internet and the fall of traditional journalism are giving hyperbole a new lease on life.
First we see Tom Friedman on Meet the Press calling the internet "an open sewer of disinformation." Then we hear Eric Schmidt, from the heights of Mountain View, second the motion by calling the net a "cesspool." Most recently, we have Ellen Goodman in her swansong telling us, with a straight face, that internet users will lament the loss of "fact checkers" and old school "journalists."
Truth is not simply what you say; it is also what you don't say. What Ms. Goodman does not say is that facts, like truths, are what we choose to believe. Unfortunately, what we believe is not necessarily true. And so it is with Goodman's facts and analysis.
A list of fact checkers from Ms. Goodman's world of truth might include Janet Cooke, Ben Bradlee, Stone Phillips, Jane Pauley, Mike Wallace, Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Dan Rather, Nina Totenberg, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Professor Goodwin is included here because she is a high-profile triple-threat: an academic, historian, and media presence.
These traditional practitioners have one or more of the following in common: fraud, plagiarism, misrepresentation, cover-up, or little or no fact checking. These are just the descriptions that might be used in polite conversation.
Yet those are not all of the facts. Consider also the institutions that employed or continue to employ such poseurs: the Washington Post, NBC, CBS, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, ABC, National Public Radio, and Harvard University.
If George Orwell could come back and review either list, he would immediately recognize the common denominators: a group of tenured progressives catering to like-minded sponsors, both with a program. The Washington Post and The New York Times cases are instructive. They shared similar agendas.
In September 1980, Janet Cooke created a fiction about a young District of Columbia crack addict. The Post story was nominated by the paper's editors for a Pulitzer Prize. After the prize had been awarded, some real fact checkers couldn't find the lad in question, and the fraud was exposed. When Editor Ben Bradlee tried to return the prize, the Pulitzer Committee demurred at first, confirming that this competition, like the annual Norwegian Nobel peace contest, is a kind of Special Olympics for the politically correct.
But the Bradlee back-story is even more revealing. Years later, he says that "he wanted the story to be true." What did he want to be true? That young drug addicts inhabit black neighborhoods or that black female journalists get a pass on the standards that are supposed to govern white males?
The New York Times fraud of 2003 was an eerie parallel to The Washington Post tale more than two decades earlier. Yet Editor Howell Raines, unlike Ben Bradlee, was a "fact checker" who made no attempt to conceal his agenda. Raines ignored internal complaints about Jayson Blair's sloppy work and advanced his young black protégé anyway. And like Janet Cooke, Blair stepped on a land mine-covering a story with racial overtones -- the Beltway sniper.
Blair's scam was exposed by a former Times employee, and the scandal occasioned an internal review that pretty much concluded that Jayson's entire tenure under Raines was an extended exercise in misguided affirmative action, if not ethnic immunity.
Yet even after the heat and smoke from both episodes cleared, the last casualty was still truth. The real story behind both frauds was the hazards of soft racism. Both reporters were all too willing to spin narratives about African-American drug abusers and serial killers that their editors were all too willing to print, facts be damned. This willingness to confirm racial stereotypes by black reporters and white editors is the real tale yet to be told.
The perils of well intentioned bias are not limited by race, youth, or sex. Newsroom cougars have been part of the swim to the bottom too. Maureen Dowd and Ellen Goodman could be pinups for journalistic agnotology, other variants of false narrative.
Miss Dowd recently accused a congressman of calling the President a "boy" with no proof other than innuendo. The false narrative here is the belief that those who criticize black politicians are bigots. Ellen Goodman in a notorious column equated those who question some of the "junk science" associated with global warming to "holocaust deniers." These ladies illustrate the lack of fair play and racist doublethink that has come to characterize many traditional newsrooms.
As it is with fact checking, reporting, and analysis, Media dinosaurs are again unwilling or unable to deal with truth. The mainstream monopoly is over. It is no longer possible for a few elites with a narrow ideology to control information or analysis, the building blocks of belief. Hemingway, a journalist by trade, was fond of saying that good writers know what to throw out. The same might be said of editors.
Politics, academia, and journalism are all troubled by the absence of term limits. Over time, these institutions tend to collect like-minded players, and tenure becomes the dominant idiom. True diversity and pluralism are usually early casualties. Small wonder that the ideological stasis at the networks and in the newsroom has fueled the "thunder on the right," enabling the rise of the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rupert Murdoch. A news consumer hopes to be better-informed by the provider. If we are misled or polarized, then surely, these are self-inflicted wounds.
Limbaugh and Murdoch have thrived for different reasons. Limbaugh sees himself as a voice for a "silent majority," an audience patronized or ignored by the mainstream. Unlike his detractors, Limbaugh makes no secret of his agenda, and he makes no fatuous claims of impartiality. Murdoch is probably less ideological, but just as savvy. Possibly taking a cue from Limbaugh, Murdoch and his FOX network recognized an underserved audience and exploited the bias of his competitors. There's money to be made in filling a vacuum -- even when it's something as simple as providing another point of view.
The virtues of the new paradigm are self-evident. On the internet, readers can go to an original content site, an aggregator, or they might create their own site. No one save endangered pundits laments the end of network and press monopolies, or the role that tenure, spin, hypocrisy, and bias play at those institutions.
The internet is the best thing to happen to free choice since Erasmus, the best thing to happen to democracy since John Locke, and the best thing to happen to commerce since Adam Smith. The internet is the new agora, a new market for ideas. The end of the mainstream, the mendacity monopoly, is gospel -- good news indeed!