Still not getting it
I have been waiting for Antonia Zerbisias to come clean on Rachel Corrie so have been checking in on her columns.
Antonia Zerbisias, the Toronto Star’s media critic, is pretty darn mad and a little worried, that Big Media is being held to account.
But there's something else at work here, and that's partisanship.
Thanks to the proliferation of blogs and other one-sided Web sites, as well as what has become known as the Fox effect, which has U.S. all-news channels moving further to the right to boost their ratings, stronger and stronger biases are affecting our credibility.
Take a very contentious subject such as the Middle East. If a paper or a pundit comes down, even ever so slightly, on one side or the other of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, accusations start flying, not only of bias but also of factual and historical error.
Even when no error has been made, credibility is still even further eroded.
After being frustrated by a lack of attention, or an insistence that the point of view as published is correct, readers or viewers give up on the source and move elsewhere, often to media which confirm their political perspectives.
In other words, given so many media choices today, people are tending to gravitate to those that confirm their own biases and beliefs.
So society gets more and more polarized, or people just end up ignorant and apathetic, while the media are fragmented further and lower their standards to maintain their numbers.
No matter how you slice it, it's a recipe for disaster.
link et seq toronto star
Zerbisias is onto something. Quickly, quicker than the media dinosaurs seem to comprehend, many if not all of the old assumptions in newspaper and electronic journalism are being challenged and destroyed by information empowered internet users. Blogs and specialist websites are changing the way news is understood and exposing the biases inherent in Big media.
Damning accusations of factual error are easy to make and prove on the net. You can link directly to your source and let the reader decide. This has lead to a new mode of argument where people who accept and promogate silly ideas - for instance Robert Fisk and the people who think he is a credible source - are handed their heads. In fact, in the blogosphere this process is called “fisking” simply because Fisk has been so factually wrong with such evident bias so often.
Instant error correction is only one of the advantages enjoyed by the emerging decentralized internet media compared to the centralized Big Media. Another is that source material is relatively easy to check. When a story like Rachel Corrie being run over by a bulldozer comes up, the question becomes who is spinning and how? What was Corrie doing? Did she die on the scene or in hospital. Was she protecting innocent Palestinians' houses or arms smuggler's tunnels, was she aiding the terrorists or promoting peace. Would she have known the difference? What about the organization, the ISM, which sponsored Corrie?
People feel entitled to ask these questions and they are unwilling to blithely accept Big Media answers.
This is not about the Jayson Blair scandal or the absurd bias of the CBC, ("Eeeks...the Americans have made it into Baghdad, there is no quagmire...right, let's find those protestors people. We have a show to put on."), it is about the fact Big Media is generally less and less able to deliver unbiased, well documented, news stories.
Zerbisias gets part of the reason for this dead right. Big Media has been dumbing down fast in the last ten years.
This explains the move to more and more sensationalist "news,'' or infotainment, which even a 10 year old can recognize as a cynical ratings or circulation ploy.
But she misses a much bigger problem entirely. She suggests,
It doesn't help our cause that many individual journalists are considered part of that establishment, pulling down fat paycheques and hobnobbing with the folks they're supposed to be criticizing.
Unintentionally, Zerbisias reveals the real problem. The media has gone into the "criticizing" business rather than sticking to the “reporting” business. And, as Zerbisias' remark demonstrates, it is criticism going only one way: against the establishment. Leaving aside the vacuity of terms like "the establishment" we can rest assured that Ms. Corrie and her ilk are not included. Lucid idiots like Michael Moore and Naomi Klein are exempt from even a brief fisking in Big Media.
The plunge in the credibility of the New York Times did not start with the exposure of Jayson Blair; it began when that paper's left bias outran its reportorial excellence. It has been compounded by editor Howell Raines pressuring its Sunday magazine into firing Andrew Sullivan, its cranky coverage of women's "rights" at Augusta National home of golf's Master's tournament, its continuing to employ Paul Krugman even after he was discovered to be on Enron's payroll as he wrote about them and supporting "Dots" Dowd when she has been proven to use ellipses for partisan purposes. What began as an argument about the bias of the New York Times is now simply a long running joke about an institution which has lost any pretence of objectivity.
Much the same sort of issue is being brought up about the BBC, the CBC and NPR: the left wing bias, distasteful but endurable if salted with good news coverage, has utterly overwhelmed the news function. Now each of these networks spend far more time reporting "reaction" than the news itself.
There are, I think, two low level and one high level reasons for this.
First, it is very difficult to maintain left positions on issues like Iraq or Israel in the face of objectively reported facts. Quagmires turn to solid ground, peace turns out to require terrorists to ceasefire, massacres and parades of dead babies turn out to be staged. So facts, the stuff of the news, turn out to be awkward for media with an institutionalized left perspective .
Second, it is a lot easier to get reaction than facts. Better still, reaction is just that - there is no truth value at all to a given person's reaction to a situation. If a reporter does ten interviews on the Arab street and has eight people say "Saddam had it coming." and two who nash their teeth and vow vengeance on the Great Satan – the reporter can report reaction on the Arab street featuring those two and ignoring the rest. Asking people how they "feel" has become a standard, if unilluminating, technique.
The high level reason is a clash between "ways of knowing" which lies at the heart of the waning credibility of Big Media. For many years the line between reporting events and commenting on those events was very clear indeed.
A reporter gave his or her best version of the facts. It was understood that this was a first draft of history, subject to revision as more facts came in. Getting the facts slightly wrong was not fatal because editors and readers accepted the convention that the facts, the real story, could come out only slowly. Interpretation was left to commentators and editorialists.
Beginning with either the Viet Nam war or Watergate, the belief grew in Big Media that a reporter's job went further than just reporting the facts. Reporters were encouraged to ask, in conditions of uncertainty, whether or not there was some sort of spin being applied to the facts.
"Whose facts?" became a legitimate and even important part of a story. In itself this was a welcome and important development. Attributing facts to their sources meant a new layer of information was added to stories. Questioning the motives of those sources allowed for balance and a useful scepticism.
However, asking "Whose facts?" opened up news reporting to systematic bias. Fairly quickly the idea arose that the press was the natural adversary of the "establishment" and therefore the natural ally of the establishment's enemies. One way this alliance played out was that while every word of a military or government spokesperson was treated as a probable lie, the sincerity and motivations of individuals, groups and nations who opposed the establishment were seldom, if ever, examined with the same scruitiny.
A huge epistemological asymmetry developed: it became an article of journalistic faith that all government/business/military statements were designed to mislead, conceal and generally avoid the truth for the worst of motives while all opposition, protest and dissenting voices were truthful, sincere and selflessly motivated.
While the media and the journalism schools seemed happy with this asymmetry, the vast majority of the viewing and reading public have not been gulled. They can see the bias even when there is a media consensus in favour of that bias.
The net effect has been exactly what Zerbisias reports, the credibility of Big Media has dwindled and so has its circulation. The public are voting with their feet. Newspaper readership is an aberration among people under 30. Network news is supported by the Geritol set. The CBC is listened to by less than 5% of the Canadian population. The New York Times circulation is in freefall.
The systemic left bias in Big Media has left a huge niche for media alternatives which do not share that bias or have a different and more attractive bias. The Fox News phenomena is a direct result of the unrelentingly negative coverage offered by the major networks and CNN. The difference is that Fox turned out to be more accurate when it came to the facts of the matter.
On the conservative and libertarian right there is a bias in favour of evidence. What are the numbers, where is the affidavit, what is the ground truth? That bias arises because many of the people on the right do not believe that truth is relative. They tend to see truth as a matter of fact rather than interpretation. And they are unblinkered by what may be politically correct or required for admission to the best chattering class parties.
This idea that there is a substantive, objective, truth of the matter flies in the face of the relativists and post-modernists who provide much of the intellectual horsepower for the left. Combined with the internet it has one awful consequence for Big Media - it holds reporters and editorialists to account. If a reporter lies or misreports an incident or spins, he or she is likely to be found out. Jayson Blair was. Maureen Dowd is and the entire Big Media edifice surrounding the New York Times is showing big cracks.
The right's anti-relativist, anti-spin position, means that basic reporting errors are caught and the credibility of a given reporter diminished or destroyed depending on the degree of their deception. Robert Fisk, having got so much wrong in the Iraqi war is now, more or less, a joke. The reporters who breathlessly told us that there were piles of dead babies in Iraq and that these were the fault of the UN sanctions have been proven both wrong and lazy. It turns out that the IDF almost certainly did not shoot 12 year old Mohammed al-Dura. (see James Fallows in the Atlantic here
.) and it will almost certainly be proven that Rachel Corrie was far more a combatant than a do-gooding peacenik.
These facts about the world begin to add up. As they do more and more of Big Media's intended audience opts for smaller, more truthful, information options – blogs, small websites and the raw feeds from the wireservices – all combine to offer a different and verifiable spin on the world.
The consensus left perspective of Big Media is withering under the pinprick attacks of literally thousands of independent news gatherers, assimilators and commentators. For the moment this is manifested in the rotting credibility of the major networks, the Times and the state owned radio and television stations. However, unless the systemic bias is removed from the major media, the manifestation will be more fundamental - their audience share will collapse.
Which Zerbisias recognizes even though she cannot quite bring herself to recognize the real reasons:
Whatever the reason, we in the news trade are doomed, like dinosaurs hurtling towards an extinction of our own creation.
That's because, individually or collectively, we're in the business of selling information ? and if our information can't be trusted, if we have no credibility and if we don't boast a commitment to accuracy, then all we offer is kitty litter liner (newspapers) or hot air (broadcasting).
Which is perhaps why so much Big Media is not even bothering, moving farther away from actually practising journalism in the public interest and deeper into purveying entertainment to interest the public long enough to stick around for the ads.
So long as the information is being spun by a basic relativism and a left bias, the news trade is indeed doomed. But the solution is not for Big Media to "practice journalism in the public interest" it is for journalists to tell the truth and let the public figure out what its interest is.