The mainstream American media is in trouble, big trouble. Whether in TV land or in print, the big outlets are seeing their market share dropping and dropping, to the point where it almost looks like free fall. Not only have people stopped watching and reading the news, reporters have dropped dramatically in the public’s estimation. People no longer trust reporters which, in practical terms, means that people no longer trust the news being reported. As conservatives, our first contention would be that people distrust reporters because so many have soft or hard Left-leaning political biases, but that is way too simple an analysis. Reporters have many more problems than just point of view issues.
To begin with, in today’s media world, reporters have little time to polish their stories. In a 24/7 environment, the pressure to publish and control a story is even more intense than that so wonderfully portrayed in His Girl Friday. Nowadays, hours no longer matter for story dominance; instead, minutes or even seconds may determine which outlet gets first bite at publication. This deprives reporters of the chance to look over their facts and really think about them.
It’s also no surprise, given the sorry state of American education, that many reporters are ill-equipped to deal with the information they’re required to regurgitate in their stories. In a nation with a shabby record in teaching math, I suspect that many reporters struggle to understand the numbers behind a polling organization’s far reaching conclusions. They therefore readily fall back on the one liners and conclusions contained in that same organization’s accompanying press release. Because of this easy way out, it often makes no difference to the report that the organization that sponsored or conducted the polling may have its own agenda.
The ignorance that plagues so many reporters has serious consequences when it comes to sensitive international issues. Take what goes on in Israel, for example. To the extent that Israel is every Islamist’s scapegoat, and every Leftist’s punching bag, anything that happens there is news. Every nuance matters. You’d think, therefore, that the best, brightest, and most well-informed reporters in any news agency would be sent to report on a spot where even minor events take on international significance. Sadly, that’s not the case. Last year, in Hillel Halkin’s Commentary article about “Israel’s media problem (subscription required), he opened by summarizing some of the conclusions contained in Stephanie Gutmann’s book The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy:
Few foreign correspondents are particularly well-educated. Most go from one posting to another and rarely stay at any for more than a few years. They usually arrive in a country with only a cursory knowledge of its history; rent living quarters in an expensive and far from typical neighborhood in its capital; never learn to speak its language or languages with any proficiency; and socialize heavily among themselves. At the same time, they are expected to present themselves as highly knowledgeable about the place they are reporting from and to file daily stories beginning the moment they arrive. Moreover, these stories must compete for space and prominence with others filed from elsewhere and must satisfy an editorial staff in a home office that worries it is being outdone by rival media.
Everywhere, this tends to produce foreign correspondents who are heavily dependent for their information and point of view on each other and on the small number of official and unofficial native sources they manage to cultivate; who view the country they are covering as much through the prism of other countries they have been in as in terms of its own uniqueness; who have little time for research, being required to churn out copy at a steady rate; who are forced to concentrate on the dramatic and superficial at the expense of the in-depth and explanatory; and who fear nothing worse than being caught out of step with their colleagues.
And if this is true generally, it is even truer of journalists writing about Israel and the Palestinians. One reason that this is so, as Gutmann points out, is that Israel is probably the most reported-on country on earth. Dozens of major newspapers and TV networks maintain permanent staffs and offices in it, and when there are major events to cover, these are massively augmented from abroad. This greatly increases the element of competitiveness—and with it, paradoxical though it may seem, the element of conformism.
All of the above factors (rapid turnaround, low education, peer pressure) means that most reporter aren’t doing their best work on any given day. Add to this the biases that inform all human thought — and that, in the reporting world, tend to lean Left — and you’re going to get carelessly written stories that have incorrect facts, silly conclusions, and subliminal political biases. In more sophisticated publications, or with more bias driven reporters, these problems may be intentional, but I’m willing to give most reporters the benefit of the doubt and ascribe to them decent, honest intentions.
These reporter-specific problems — that is, the problems of carelessness, laziness, conformity, etc. — might be helped by genuine competition, but that’s not happening in the traditional media marketplace. While traditional media professes to be a competitive marketplace, with different outlets struggling for market share, the reality is that content comes from a few monopolistic sources. Every news outlet, major or minor, plucks many of its stories off of AP or Reuters, and the middle to minor news outlets, when not reporting on local stories, also like to pull stories off the New York Times or Washington Post. In other words, all the papers are reporting on the same thing, and often using the identical stories.
If you don’t believe me, pick an interesting topic, go to Google news, type that topic into the search box, and check out the results. At first glance, it looks as if dozens, or even hundreds, of different outlets are going after the story — something that would imply different facts, spins and viewpoints. Closer examination, though, reveals that all of these outlets are simply quoting the same AP story, New York Times, or Washington Post report. Here’s an example using McCain’s presidential announcement on the Letterman show. As you can see, despite the more than 600 different links, most (although not all) of them just rehash the AP and Reuters stories.
And this is where the blogosphere comes in. While traditional American media alternatively reviles the blogosphere or, rather ineptly, attempts to co-opt it (sometimes simultaneously), it’s the blogosphere right now that provides the competitive corrective that will force the MSM either to clean up its act or retire from the news business. To demonstrate my point, for the past few weeks I’ve been collecting evidence of inaccurate news stories that received well publicized corrections courtesy of the blogosphere. Here are just a few of the examples I’ve found:
At the end of January, the New York Times blithely published an article stating, based on a witness’ Senate testimony, that “Almost 60 percent of the scientists who responded to the survey said they had personally experienced such an incident in the last five years [when the government pressured them to remove references to climate change from their work], the report says, and those who said their work was most closely related to climate change experienced the most interference.” One day later, James Taranto, writing in the Best of the Web Today, actually examined the survey to which the Senate witness and the Times cited to support this ugly conclusion. He discovered myriad problems with the survey’s methodology, including the response rate. His conclusion: “To put it much more simply, this was an unscientific survey. If this is how these guys do social science, how can we trust them with the hard stuff?” Without the blogosphere, the New York Times version would have stood unchallenged.
Best of the Web (which seems to have a good sense for surveys) caught another example of innumeracy in a much heralded study about the high number of police suicides. The article touts the fact that the police suicide rate is way higher than the national average. There’s good news for you policemen out there, though. As Taranto cogently explains, this conclusion is almost certainly wrong:
There may be some truth to this, but not very much. For USA Today and its sources have ignored the key factor behind police suicide rates: sex. The vast majority of policemen are men, and men are much more likely to commit suicide than women.
According to the most recent report by the National Center for Women in Policing (PDF, see page 2), a feminist group, as of 2001 “women represent only 11.2% of all sworn law enforcement personnel in the U.S.” That means the remaining 88.8% are male.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (PDF, see page 238), the overall age-adjusted male suicide rate in 2002 was 18.4 per 100,000, while the female rate was just 4.2 per 100,000.
If we assume that the police are a representative sample of the population as a whole (apart from the sex disparity), we would expect a suicide rate of approximately 16.8 per 100,000, not much below the 18 per 100,000 that USA Today reports.
It turns out, though, that the overall nationwide suicide rate is skewed downward because it includes children and teenagers, who have a much lower propensity for suicide than adults. This effect is so pronounced that every age group over 20 has a higher-than-average suicide rate. In particular, the overall suicide rate for 25- to 44-year-old men was 22.2 per 100,000 in 2002, and for 45- to 64-year-old men it was 23.5 per 100,000.
Sometimes blogosphere pressure is so great that the media outlets are forced to do their own debunking. In January, the New York Times proudly announced that, for the first time ever, the majority of American woman are not married (payment required). The blogosphere immedately leapt into action, pointing out that the article included in this unmarried majority (1) 15 through 19 year olds, who haven’t married in large numbers since about 1960; (2) military wives separated from their husbands by war, not divorce; and (3) elderly widows who had devoted the bulk of their adult lives to marriage and really shouldn’t be included in a list of women rejecting the institution. The truth is that 56% of American women are currently married. It’s not a large majority, but it’s a majority. The New York Times itself quickly backed away from its own conclusions (although, interestingly, the semi-retraction is careful not to mention a word about blog pressure).
The blogosphere has also proved extremely useful, just in the past weeks, as a reference tool to correct manifest media ignorance about political process. When the Senate was debating its Iraq resolution, the media kept claiming that the Republicans were cutting off debate. In fact, the opposite was true. It was the Democrats who were using the arcane procedural device of “cloture” to silence Republicans. Again, the interested public would never have learned this without the “alternative” media.
Often, the blogosphere helps to expose plain media sneakiness. The other day, the The New York Times published an article attempting to discredit Obsession, the documentary film that uses the Islamist’s own media to expose Islamist hated and calls to violence. To bolster its claim that the film is a hate-filled hit piece against Islam, the Times quoted a rabbi. After all, if a rabbi can’t stomach an attack on those anti-Semitic Islamists, who can? What the Times forgot to mention, but the blogosphere revealed within hours, is that the rabbi quoted isn’t just any rabbi. Instead, he’s a rabbi with a history:
The rabbi that the New York Times dug up to co-sign their smear job is a far-left anti-Zionist Peace Now creep who recently settled out of court, for a physical attack on pro-Israel writer Rachel Neuwirth in 2003: UCLA Hillel rabbi apologizes, settles 2003 case with woman journalist. (Hat tip: EE.)
A UCLA Hillel rabbi accused of accosting a freelance journalist in October 2003 has sent the writer a letter of apology as part of a court settlement.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel director, was accused by Rachel Neuwirth of verbally and physically assaulting her outside Royce Hall, on the UCLA campus, during a speech by Alan Dershowitz more than four years ago.
The letter was part of a settlement reached by Seidler-Feller and Neuwirth on Jan. 19, 2007.
In the letter, Seidler-Feller wrote “I am deeply sorry that I hit, kicked, and scratched you and called you a liar. By taking these unprovoked actions, I have contradicted the pluralism, peace and tolerance about which I so often preach.”
Oh, yeah, that rabbi! That’s the one lending credibility to a Times story.
I could go on and on with examples that I’ve collected in just the last month showing the blogosphere correcting intentional mistakes, carelessness, ignorance or sneakiness in widely published or broadcast MSM stories. I think, though, that you’ve probably got the point here. I want to end this post, therefore, with a little discussion about the American judicial process. It sounds like a digression, but it isn’t, and you’ll see why if you stick with me to the end.
Lawyers often describe a courtroom as a crucible — a place in which two opposing views clash at high heat, burning away impurities, and leaving behind the truth. That’s a very high flown way to put it but, surprisingly, this view is fairly accurate. In the average civil trial, where you can reasonably assume that the parties are similarly situated economically (meaning equally skilled attorneys) each party gets to present evidence supporting his version of the “truth.” In addition, each party is allowed to challenge, quite vigorously, the other side’s presentation. Having listened to both sides of the story, the finder of fact (whether a judge or a jury) gets to decide which evidence is most reliable, and which interpretation of that evidence most compelling. This may result in a factual finding for one side over the other, or in a peculiar amalgam reached by cherry picking facts from both sides of the dispute.
This adversarial process means that, in an American courtroom, that no one can go in and simply rest on his facts without having to prove them vigorously and support them well in the face of an aggressive challenge. Lies and carelessness will swiftly be exposed, leaving the truth behind — or, at the very least, a quality simulacrum of the truth, which is sometimes the best one can hope for in the absence of perfect evidence. In this way, the courtroom is a microcosm of the marketplace of ideas. Every day, in every courtroom in America, people have to defend their ideas against attack. For this reason, while the American judicial system is undoubtedly flawed (it is, after all, a human institution), it is nevertheless one of the best things around for dispute resolution.
The blogosphere has finally created a crucible for the calcified American media. Reporters can no longer rest on their credentials and try pass off as facts unchecked stories, suspect sources, and biased reporting. They now have to go into every story prepared to do their best, because someone is finally watching — and not only watching, but able to react immediately with corrective information.
Given all this, what we in the blogosphere need to do is convince the MSM that we’re actually good for them. We’re not their enemy, we’re their best friend. Before the blogosphere came along, the MSM could print anything and get away with it. In the old days, journalistic ethics demanded a certain effort, but the 24 hour cycle seems to have created a type of carelessness that cleared away the past requirement that news stories actually get checked and rechecked. Even the best, most ethical journalistic working under those circumstances must begin to feel lazy and intellectually cheap. Now that we’re challenging them, though, we’re forcing them to operate with a degree of intellectual honesty and rigor that must elevate them in their own eyes and in the public’s. And that’s why, much as they dislike us, the mainstream journalists should be grateful for the fact that they “ain’t never had a friend like me” — someone who can improve their work, whether they want me to or not!
UPDATE: On the subject of media carelessness, an the rush to publish anything, so long as you’re the first to publish, Curt, at Flopping Aces, reports on a bomb that wasn’t in Iraq. By the way, this is not an example of the blogosphere helping the media correct — the military was the one that did — but it does show the problems dogging the American media, and helps demonstrate why the media should be grateful for all the help it can get to do a better job.
UPDATE II: Here’s a great example of the blogosphere publicizing something the people of California really need to know about, but that the California media has, accidentally or on purpose, overlooked.
UPDATE III: Laer takes on some really glaring errors in a BBC story about climate change. This is, again, a really superb example of the blogosphere at work, correcting bias driven carelessness in a story that a reporter, by exercising a modicum of discipline, could have written correctly in the first place (although he might have been forced to abandon his biases).
Filed under: Media matters