Thursday, November 06, 2008

Now, About That Media Vetting Thing ...

After watching the public excoriation of Joe the Plumber, many were infuriated and shocked by the display of partisanship that is now called "journalism". It took some time for the public outrage to register with this tone-deaf media. Thomas Frank, whose opinion piece "Blessed Are the Persecuted" appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 29, wrote a typical blame-them piece that included this gem:

"All these attacks on the good people of the trans-Beltway region, and yet no actual, physical attacks to speak of!"
My reaction was, well, you jerk, since it's no big deal, should journalists and editors be publicly "vetted", too? If I had had the means the moment after I read his article, there's no doubt, I'd have started with Thomas Frank that very day. But I didn't have the means, so I wrote the post instead. And from a visitor who commented, and via Ace, I learned about the newly formed And I thought, yes! Delicious! Let's roll!

But today, the public bludgeoning has resulted in a new purpose in life for Joe the Plumber. And today, all of us are mulling over the results of the media campaign to elect Obama. I hear that they may be reporting some things now - too late, of course, and a transparent attempt to recover credibility. Suddenly the economy isn't so bad. Suddenly the Great Depression isn't so depressed. Suddenly The One might have little imperfections here and there, that they might have overlooked before. But Chris Matthews says, "I want to do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work ..." No doubt that will include a four-year-long smear job on Sarah Palin, to destroy any chance of a future run.

As most of America now knows, news rooms are now in the business of indoctrination, not information, and there's ample evidence that they see nothing wrong with it. It's socially responsible, you see, to help the little morons in the "trans-Beltway region" to elect The Media's Chosen One.

Clearly, we have a very big problem, but I don't think it can be solved by publicly vetting the life of some piss-ant reporter from the Toledo Blade. Don't get me wrong - I feel like doing it. Turn-about is fair play. But the question is, other than visceral gratification, is it productive? And, more importantly, is it right?

For several reasons, I think it is neither. First of all, the media members who published more details of the life of an ordinary plumber than they did a candidate for president did nothing for their credibility. Publishing details of media members' lives will not increase the perceived value of the work of bloggers and new media. It's yellow journalism, and even if that has become standard fare in "respectable" network newsrooms: Not productive, not right.

Secondly, there is every possibility that those few reporters who report actual, factual news will be caught in the crossfire. Not right.

Another reason is that it will look like more of the same to people who are looking for alternatives - because it is more of the same. Apart from the "don't sink to their level" thing, it produces little of value for those who are finally able to access viewpoints that break from dead-boring, lockstep media. Nobody is going to be thunderstruck by what might be in Chris Matthews' garbage can. Not productive.

I think there are better, more productive ways to get that visceral satisfaction. Instead of outing their personal lives like they did Joe's, mention their sponsors. And the sponsors' email addresses. Mention their insulting remarks about ordinary Americans to the sponsors. ("Every time I look at product X it makes me think of that raving lunatic on MSNBC...")

There are journalists who are as appalled by the state journalism as some of us are. Like Michael Malone*, who said,
"...worst of all, for the last couple weeks, I've begun -- for the first time in my adult life -- to be embarrassed to admit what I do for a living. A few days ago, when asked by a new acquaintance what I did for a living, I replied that I was "a writer," because I couldn't bring myself to admit to a stranger that I'm a journalist."
He has a theory about the behavior of the media during this election:
I learned a long time ago that when people or institutions begin to behave in a matter that seems to be entirely against their own interests, it's because we don't understand what their motives really are. It would seem that by so exposing their biases and betting everything on one candidate over another, the traditional media is trying to commit suicide -- especially when, given our currently volatile world and economy, the chances of a successful Obama presidency, indeed any presidency, is probably less than 50/50.
He thinks that it is not so much the reporters, but the editors they work for, that are responsible for the bias in this election*:
Why? I think I know, because had my life taken a different path, I could have been one: Picture yourself in your 50s in a job where you've spent 30 years working your way to the top, to the cockpit of power … only to discover that you're presiding over a dying industry. The Internet and alternative media are stealing your readers, your advertisers and your top young talent.

In other words, you are facing career catastrophe -- and desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if you have to risk everything on a single Hail Mary play. Even if you have to compromise the principles that got you here. After all, newspapers and network news are doomed anyway -- all that counts is keeping them on life support until you can retire.

And then the opportunity presents itself -- an attractive young candidate whose politics likely matches yours, but more important, he offers the prospect of a transformed Washington with the power to fix everything that has gone wrong in your career.

With luck, this monolithic, single-party government will crush the alternative media via a revived fairness doctrine, re-invigorate unions by getting rid of secret votes, and just maybe be beholden to people like you in the traditional media for getting it there.

And besides, you tell yourself, it's all for the good of the country …
If Malone is right, we may want to think about where our time is best spent. In the war between old and new media, there may be only one survivor.

* I've updated the links to point to Malone's column at instead of ABC. The same column was published in both.

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