The Civil War Within Conservative Media

Though it’s not been well analyzed by mainstream reporters, the so-called conservative media have been split down the middle by the Donald Trump phenomenon.  Outlets like the Drudge Report, Breitbart, and the Washington Times have been in loud and consistent support, while National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary (the last two the leading journals of neoconservatism) have been in full-throated opposition.

Conservative commentators with other media are also divided, with such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Ross Douthat on the anti-Trump side, while Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Goodwin are pro-Trump.

Other right-leaning journals, like The American Spectator and The Daily Caller, also appear to be in Trump’s corner.

Falling somewhere in the middle of all this have been opinion writers like the erudite Victor Davis Hanson and the always-astute Peggy Noonan, both of whom seem likely to part company with those conservatives and neoconservatives who are looking for ways to undermine Trump even if it means the election of likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

It will be interesting to see how some of the conservative “NeverTrump” commentators handle the blowback in the days and months ahead.  >> Read More

 The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on May 23, 2016.

Opinion Journalism vs. Objective News Reporting

The rise of opinion journalism, not just among cable and the newer media but elements of the legacy media as well, magnifies the problem of the dearth of objective news reporting.  About five years ago even the Associated Press announced a turn toward opinion, euphemistically referred to as “accountability journalism,” while the Washington Post and the New York Times have for years now been foundering in the stuff.

Makes one wonder where to turn (outside, perhaps, of the business and financial journals) for investigative and feature news that is not in service to some political party, ideology, or special interest.

And what a loss!  At the very moment that this country desperately needs an independent, credible, and objective press to describe and chronicle the country’s manifest economic problems, there’s practically nobody in the Fourth Estate who commands widespread trust and respect.

For all the talk about the new media, much of it online, is there anyone so credulous as to believe they’re getting unvarnished facts in a “news report” published by such as Slate, Salon, or the Huffington Post?  Or, at the other extreme, by Breitbart, Drudge, or Newsmax?

Nor is there any relief to be found in the product offered up by outlets like Politico, an online journal that has never spotted an issue of such gravity it can’t be covered by resort to rumor, superficiality, and the banalities of horse race journalism.

The complete failure of the media to adequately explain complex policy issues first became unavoidably clear during the presidential election of 2008 when, despite the obvious nature of our economic distress at the time, the media demanded precisely nothing of substance on the subject from McCain or Obama.

This failure has also been a persistent feature of the coverage since of the Affordable Care Act, sequestration, the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing,” and unemployment.  A recent headline from Mediaite, summarizing a new Pew poll, put it this way: “Biased, Frivolous, And Liberal: Poll Shows Most Americans Still Distrust The Media.”

A number of academics have aided and abetted the collapse of objectivity as a journalistic standard, premising their arguments on the sophomoric notion that objectivity isn’t attainable.  Of course it isn’t attainable if there’s no interest in attaining it, but it’s not like objectivity is a Zen koan or some such. What’s required is editors who are smarter and tougher and more fair-minded than the reporters who work for them, and owners who care about the editorial product itself and not just the ads the editorial product attracts.

The need for objective news reporting grows in proportion to the number and kinds of societal problems, especially those with an important economic element.  Take, for instance, the recent scandals centering on the actions of the IRS.

For most political reporters, and most politicians, the targeting of conservatives by that agency is only of real importance if it can be shown that the president or senior administration officials ordered it.  But that’s just exactly backwards.  The targeting is vastly worse if there was no Administration input; if, instead, these were just the acts of a politicized bureaucracy.

Indeed, the accuracy and value-free qualities of government data collection and government-supplied information are indispensable to this or any well functioning democracy.  Whole markets, after all (not to mention laws and regulations) turn on the truthfulness and clarity of data such as that supplied every month by the Commerce and Labor departments.

A story posted on Aug.11, by Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Weil, adds a wrinkle to the subject. According to Weil, the Justice Department admitted to having grossly overstated the number of mortgage fraud cases the department had filed as part of a multi-agency Mortgage Fraud Working Group.  Weil characterizes the false numbers originally given out as appearing to have been “willfully filed,” and only belatedly corrected because of the pressure put on by some other Bloomberg reporters.

In the larger scheme of things, this particular example of governmental malfeasance is probably not going to bring down the Republic, but the point of it all is to say that if the nation’s news media were to multiply Bloomberg’s reportorial effort by, say, a hundred (or a thousand) additional examples, the media might resurrect their own faltering reputations, and help sustain our democracy in the process.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Orts and All

Can’t Miss TV

Comes now the news that Michael Moore, the merry propagandist, is joining Keith Olbermann on Al Gore’s Current TV, the legendary television network.  It’s practically a miracle!  Even now the crowds are queuing up to catch a glimpse of this dynamic duo.

One can only imagine the kind of material that, in collaboration, they may produce.  Perhaps an investigative report on the link between Citizens United, the Tea Party, and global warming.  Or maybe something even more intellectual, like a video essay on how the alleged indebtedness of the federal and state governments is just a rumor started by the gnomes of Zurich.

Whatever, isn’t it great to know that we live in a country where bombast and imbecility can have their day in the court of public opinion?  As they say in the ad – “mm, mm, good!”

Those ‘Public’ Airwaves

The Speaking Freely essay written by Erwin Krasnow, recently co-published by The Media Institute and The Thomas Jefferson Center, is striking in a number of ways, not least because its author is a former general counsel of the National Association of Broadcasters.  As such, Mr. Krasnow has known for years of broadcasting’s embrace of concepts like “scarcity” and the "public interest" standard as useful tools in re certain policy issues, like cable TV’s “must carry” obligations.

So how to get a handle on Krasnow’s call now for an end to such concepts, and to the notion that the public “owns” the airwaves?  Perhaps it’s the prospect of forced spectrum surrender, or maybe the notion that broadcasters are able these days to charge for their carriage by cable that explains it all.  Whatever, it will be interesting to see if, in days ahead, the NAB echoes some of Krasnow’s arguments.  For that matter, it would be interesting to know what those at NAB think of Krasnow’s essay, which has attracted rather a lot of attention.  Goes without saying that we at TMI would be more than happy to publish any such.

It’s the Gospel (‘Jesus Dropped the Charges’)

Doubling down on my earlier reckless confession of love for the blues and gospel music, herewith a link to a piece by the late O’Neil Twins.  (Yes, the title is amusing, but I’ll fight any man in the bar who says he doesn’t like the music.)  Check it out here.

Drudging Respect

Writing in The New York Times, David Carr has this to say about the extraordinary influence of the Drudge Report: “Yes, Mr. Drudge is a conservative ideologue whose site also serves as a crib sheet for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.  But if you believe that his huge traffic numbers are a byproduct of an ideologically motivated readership, consider that 15 percent of the traffic at Washington Post.com, which is not exactly a hotbed of Tea Party foment, comes from The Drudge Report.”

Say what?  Featuring, on its editorial pages, such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Jennifer Rubin, Robert Samuelson, Mark Thiessen, and Michael Gerson, the WAPO may not be a hotbed of “Tea Party foment,” but it is the source of a lot of conservative opinion of the sort that Drudge links to often.

Carr’s opinion to the contrary notwithstanding (and how many times do we have to say this?), the primary reason for Drudge’s success – as for the success of conservative talk radio and the Fox News Channel – is its political point of view, which is different from that of most of the MSM, and popular with a large number of people.  Sheesh!

                                   

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Whither Journalism? Part II

If journalism of a satisfactory depth, independence, and scale is going to survive, it will have to be produced by professional journalists employed by profit-making organizations.  As such it will require revenue streams that are sufficient for the purpose.  As a practical matter this means that newspapers will have to find ways of getting paid for access to their online content.  Advertising by itself will not do the trick.

But given the growing number of bloggers, citizen journalists, and news aggregating sites who specialize in opinion pieces (RealClearPolitics, Huffington Post, Drudge) there is a real question of how professional journalists can distinguish themselves from the rest of their online competition.

The view from here is that the question answers itself.  Professional news organizations, newspapers especially, should rid their online news pages of opinion and concentrate instead on the production of news and feature stories that run deep and straight down the middle.

Unfortunately this is the precise opposite of what is in vogue today, with media organizations like Newsweek and even the Associated Press moving in the direction of more rather than less opinion in their news stories.  It’s a mistake.

Opinion is the cheapest commodity in the world, precisely because everybody has one.  No need for inside or expert sources, for special expertise in the subject matter, or even for any real writing ability.  Opinion gains recognition in direct proportion to the extravagance of its expression.  As such, opinion is the “killer app” not of newspapers but of the blogosphere, which is why a site as undistinguished as Daily Kos attracts such a large number of visitors.

The problem for newspapers is compounded when the opinions they express in their news and editorial pages are too one-sided politically.  To give one example, the New York Times, which is losing paid circulation at a ferocious pace, reads these days very much like a house organ in its support of the Democratic party and policies.

To believe that this is not spotted, and resented, by people who are, say, Republicans or conservatives, is an exercise in self-delusion.  Even if one wants to argue that Republicans and conservatives are not in the majority today, they represent a very large minority for any business needing to sell itself to the public at large.

In any case, the main point is that newspapers and other professional news organizations should concentrate on doing those things, like in-depth and objective coverage of domestic and foreign affairs, which neither the news aggregators nor the bloggers have the talent or resources to do themselves.

Whatever their future revenue streams — from advertising and micropayments or walled content — it’s going to be necessary for the “mainstream media” to finds ways of distinguishing themselves from their online competitors.  One way of doing that would be to practice first-rate journalism and rigorous objectivity in the reporting and analysis of the news.

The Good and the Bad of It

Because, as they say on TV news promos, "you need to know," herewith some thumbnail opinions of certain journalists and media outlets:

Daily Kos—Not since the Ku Klux Klan started wearing sheets has anonymity been put to a more malevolent use. If you worry only about the right, spend a little time reading the anonymous posts here and see if you still feel that way.

Drudge Report—If anyone had told you, back in the day, that Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report were destined to become the news leader in American journalism, would you have believed it? Well, you should have, because these days that is not only the fact, it’s the acknowledged fact. News organizations from the great to the obscure fall all over themselves trying to get a link to one of their stories on the Drudge Report. As Drudge himself says, “they kiss the ring.”

Christopher Hitchens—The scourge of all things politically correct, and a very entertaining writer. Wrong about a number of things, but who cares?

Charles Krauthammer—Smart, clever, serious.

Mainstream media (generally speaking)—In immediate and urgent need of more (and more prominently displayed) economic reporters. Looking back on the financial crisis gripping the country at this time, historians will marvel at the shallowness of the media coverage of it. In significant part this is owing to the fact that the media have too many political reporters covering economics and not enough economic reporters covering politics (or economics).

Keith Olbermann—If he’s not deliberately channeling Howard Beale he gives a good impression of it.

Politico—Though its coverage of politics is devoid of anything even remotely artful and features an overabundance of “horse-race” analyses, this relatively new journal is already the best in class. The online version is updated frequently, including on weekends, and taken as a whole its political slant is neither pronounced nor off-putting.

RealClearPolitics—One of the best of the political news aggregators, though they provide too many links to the same few (and politically predictable) sources. The greater value is found in their links to less familiar outlets, including blog sites, and in their own contributors like Jay Cost.

Robert Samuelson—Though he writes impressively about many things, Samuelson’s greatest strength is his understanding of economics. His pieces last month and this about the financial crisis are far and away the best things written on that subject by anyone at the Washington Post.

Tom Shales—In the way that some people are said to have a perfect ear, Shales has a perfect eye. His take on everything from speeches to TV shows is almost always spot on, and the class of the field. Unfortunate, therefore, that he occasionally wanders into matters of politics and policy. Note to Tom: Don’t do it. You’re not good at it, and it diminishes you even to make the effort.

Slate—Not perfect but a serious place for serious people, and marked by terrific writing. If the Washington Post, which owns Slate, were more like it, it would be a fresher and more widely admired newspaper.

George Will—The best of the commentariat. Made his journalistic bones, so to speak, during the Nixon regime where, second perhaps only to Woodward and Bernstein, he was the leading critic of that Administration. Though a conservative Republican, not averse to taking on conservatives and Republicans, as seen in his recent scathing criticism of John McCain (McCain Loses His Head). One of the very few journalists (Robert Samuelson being another) with a broad understanding of the speech clause of the First Amendment.