The MSM: In a Horse Race to Irrelevancy?

Perhaps because of their declining prospects, much of the mainstream media are acting very hinky these days.  On the one hand we have the spectacle of such as the Associated Press and Newsweek openly adopting opinion as their journalistic motif.  While on the other we see newspapers, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, awash in the kind of political reporting that reduces even the most important policy issues to the banalities of “horse race” journalism.

This latter development has become all the more insufferable in the current nightmarish environment, where every current and proposed law or regulation should be more carefully analyzed for its effect on the economy than for its impact on politicians and political parties.

Coverage of the health care debate has been singularly inadequate for precisely this reason.  For every news and feature story that has delved into the effects, say, of the “public option” or the “employer mandate,” a hundred have dwelt on the chances of legislative passage, or on the political winners and losers.

Comes now the leaked e-mail  messages from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, just days before an important environmental summit in Copenhagen, and the question is whether the MSM, in the wake of it, will finally treat the subject of global warning with the care and objectivity that such a complex subject demands.

Even without so-called cap-and-trade legislation looming on the congressional horizon, the many national and international environmental laws that are now being implemented or considered require that global warming be closely scrutinized for its scientific findings, and for the impact and efficacy of any public policies as may be pursued in consequence.  The unseemly aspects of the CRU correspondence simply adds fuel to what should be a brightly burning subject even without it.

Consider, for instance, the critical linkages that have to be established and explained if “global warming” is to be understood by people generally (as distinguished from “warmists” or “skeptics”), as a subject they should care about.

First, it has to be clear that warming is happening, and that it is man-made, a subject about which there was, in fact, debate even before the CRU debacle.  Then it has to be determined that said warming is of such peril something needs to be done about it.  (Again, the subject of debate.)  Then, of course, it has to be shown that there is something that can be done about it.  And finally, we have to know that what we do won’t have negative consequences (like, for instance, on the economy) that are worse than the effects of the warming itself.

Seen in this way the opinions of climatologists are just one element, and not even the most important one, that needs to be considered and fully examined.  But is that happening in the coverage of this issue by the MSM?  Doesn’t look like it.  Instead, as with their coverage of health care reform, news stories about global warming tend to be either (1) preposterously opinionated, and wrapped in the familiar blather of political correctness, or (2) woefully superficial, a consequence of their horse-race aspects and focus not on substance but on the political sideshow.

Hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere, lamenting the prospective demise of journalism, by which they mean, even if they don’t say so, what we have come to call the mainstream media – the broadcast networks, big-city papers, the newsweeklies, the wire services.  But as shown in their coverage of global warming and health care reform, today’s MSM appear to be adrift, and operating apart not only from their traditions, but also from what is in their own, and our, best interest.

Cross-posted in Huffington Post, here.

Fox News and Its Critics

Criticism of the Fox News Channel by the Obama Administration is neither inexplicable nor unprecedented.  But the response to this flap by the press is all of that and then some.  From the near-total silence of most, to the blinkered and self-righteous response of a few, the affair casts an unflattering light on the mindset and pretenses of much of the Washington press corps.

Take, for instance, Jacob Weisberg (please).  Here’s a gentleman who, when not inflicting his shrill and politically marginal opinions on the three or four people who still read Newsweek, presides over Slate, an online magazine that counts, among its reporters and editors, precisely one (out of 57) who voted for John McCain in the last presidential election.

It’s with these credentials that Weisberg wrote the following on Oct. 17: “Whether the White House engages with Fox is a tactical political question.  Whether we journalists do so is an ethical one.  By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations.  Respected journalists … should stop appearing on its programs.”

The very idea that “respected journalists” might advance journalistic ethics by ostracizing another media company solely because of the perspective that company brings to the news of the day — as though other news organizations were value-free vessels of the purest objectivity — is hundred-proof claptrap.  That this corrosive idea is the brainchild of a journalist says much more about him, and about journalists generally, than it does about the facts at issue.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the great disconnect in our national dialogue (and the reason for the popular success of Fox News) is that the press corps, and the journalism they produce, skew center-left in a country that is overwhelmingly center-right.  It is (fortunately) true, as Marxist and other leftist critics are wont to complain, that the media are to the right of them.  However, the media are most assuredly not to the right of the electorate, but to the left, and that’s a problem — first for the country, and also for media companies themselves.

Still, it’s one thing to have mainstream journalists who are out of sync with, and resented by, millions of people, and another thing entirely to have journalists who are unwilling to rally around a news organization under assault by this or any White House.  Worse still, of course, are those, like Weisberg, who actually join the assault and invite others to do likewise. 

Eating Their Seed Corn

From the New York Times comes word this week of big changes looming at one of the country’s oldest newsweeklies.  “Newsweek,” they say, “is planning a redesign and some shifts in content to fashion an opinionated take on events, aimed at a much smaller, and wealthier, readership.”

In truth it doesn’t come as a surprise.  In many ways it isn’t even news.  But it’s disappointing all the same to see one of the country’s mainstream media outlets consciously, and proudly, abandon the time-honored journalistic standard of objectivity.

Nobody’s going to run off and join the circus in consequence of this development because, as seen during last year’s election campaign, virtually all of the mainstream media have demonstrated an ability to abandon objectivity whenever it pleases them.

As mentioned here before, nowhere was this more lamentable than in the coverage of the presidential candidates’ take on economic issues.  When this point was made in an earlier blog, some people took it to be a partisan observation.  But it wasn’t, and isn’t.

Even if the media had done a credible, and objective, job of pressing both candidates on their plans for the economy, Obama would still have won.  Maybe even by a larger margin.  This, because no matter how little Obama may know about economics, John McCain knows even less.

But look how much better off we’d be if the press had challenged Obama to give more than lip service to these kinds of issues.  In addition to a better informed public, we might also have an economic stimulus plan that reflected more of the thinking of the president than of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

The political and societal ramifications aside, there is another downside to the media’s embrace of opinion over objectivity: It’s unlikely to work, online or off.

As evidence consider what one supposes is a model of future Newsweek reportage, a story by Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas.  Provocatively titled “We Are All Socialists Now,” the piece purports to document a profound shift in our collective view of the correct form of government.

What’s striking about the article, however, is that it is about 90 percent opinion, with little or nothing of substance to it.  There’s no there there; nothing that informs, analyzes, or even segues.  Just a kind of fluffy amalgam of the pedestrian and superficial, in which most of the intellectual energy seems to have gone into the title.

A good exercise in times such as these is to ask oneself how much you would  be willing to pay for a thing if you had to pay to receive it.  The question can be asked of all kinds of things.  Were it asked of this Newsweek article, the guess here is that few people would offer to pay anything.

A few months ago a Microsoft executive gave a speech to some online publishers in London in which he said that publishers’ decisions to give their online content away for free had been a disastrous mistake.  And now we have the first, but undoubtedly not the last, of the mainstream media to openly embrace opinion journalism as a model for the future.

The question not yet answered is what – after they have surrendered first their content and then their journalistic patrimony – the media will do if all this fails to halt the slide?