The trouble with the news

I’m going to quote three leads from three pieces that were just written about the trouble with the news today. The litany of troubles is no longer the subject of debate. It is conventional wisdom.

First, see the remarkable essay by Judge Richard Posner (who knew that he blogs?) in Sunday’s New York Times book review, setting forth the state of the fourth estate:

The conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds. In a recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 65 percent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if they discover they’ve made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up, and 79 percent opined that a media company would hesitate to carry negative stories about a corporation from which it received substantial advertising revenues….

Now here is Barb Palser’s piece in AJR on journalism’s backseat drivers (that’s us):

These are beleaguered times for news organizations. As if their problems with rampant ethical lapses and declining readership and viewership aren’t enough, their competence and motives are being challenged by outsiders with the gall to call them out before a global audience.

Journalists are in the hot seat, their feet held to the flames by citizen bloggers who believe mainstream media are no more trustworthy than the politicians and corporations they cover, that journalists themselves have become too lazy, too cloistered, too self-righteous to be the watchdogs they once were. Or even to recognize what’s news.

And now see Rory O’Connor’s piece, published in a few places on the web:

By any measure American journalism is in a state of crisis. Media scams and scandals abound, embroiling journalists and their news outlets — from Jayson Blair and The New York Times to Dan Rather and CBS News — in controversy. Plagiarism, errors and outright hoaxes proliferate, along with corrections, extensive “Editor’s Notes” and eventual apologies. Partisan political operatives masquerade as credible news agents, disseminating fake news produced by phony journalists. Columnists and commentators accept government and corporate money to shill ideas without disclosing it to their audiences. Government-produced propaganda is presented as objective reportage.

No wonder journalists rank near the bottom of every poll measuring the trustworthiness of American institutions.

And yet still, I hear journalists say there is no problem with journalism… and how dare anyone say there is.

: Here are a few samples of what Posner says about bloggers; read the whole thing. He understands the real interaction between citizens’ and professional journalism:

The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog. Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded – it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media….

Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be accurate. [I’d certainly argue with that -jeff] Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for. He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media’s customers one by one, as it were.

And bloggers thus can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases. A newspaper will not hire a journalist for his knowledge of old typewriters, but plenty of people in the blogosphere have that esoteric knowledge, and it was they who brought down Dan Rather. Similarly, not being commercially constrained, a blogger can stick with and dig into a story longer and deeper than the conventional media dare to, lest their readers become bored….

What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust….

In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It’s as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.

How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when the competition is not entirely fair. The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab….

Some critics worry that ”unfiltered” media like blogs exacerbate social tensions by handing a powerful electronic platform to extremists at no charge….

But probably there is little harm and some good in unfiltered media. They enable unorthodox views to get a hearing. They get 12 million people to write rather than just stare passively at a screen. In an age of specialization and professionalism, they give amateurs a platform….

And most people are sensible enough to distrust communications in an unfiltered medium. They know that anyone can create a blog at essentially zero cost, that most bloggers are uncredentialed amateurs, that bloggers don’t employ fact checkers and don’t have editors and that a blogger can hide behind a pseudonym. They know, in short, that until a blogger’s assertions are validated (as when the mainstream media acknowledge an error discovered by a blogger), there is no reason to repose confidence in what he says. The mainstream media, by contrast, assure their public that they make strenuous efforts to prevent errors from creeping into their articles and broadcasts. They ask the public to trust them, and that is why their serious errors are scandals.

  • One of the downsides with the b-sphere is what we saw in the presidential election. Most of the attendees to the GOP convention were supporters and they offered supportive “coverage”. Likewise with the other side.

    And, the major blogs were able to push a relatively insignificant story into prominence (Rathergate) while ignoring more important issues.

    Somewhat OT, you might be interested in this table. I compared the first three paragraphs of two “news” stories advocating for the DREAM Act side-by-side. Most people would assume that there’s some sort of formula at work. Perhaps someone with sources inside newsrooms could look into those and all the other very similar articles that have been written advocating for that Act.

  • Of course if you’re a liberal you can’t buy Posner’s argument because it uses Hayek’s logic. And if Hayek’s logic is sound then what makes it work in this case and not in the case of the economy? I think the religious right are in a similar position as the left here except with stem cells. What if they cure cancer? Are the religious right going to refuse treatment?

  • Mainstream media are used to being the watchdogs. Under their very noses, another tier has been constructed, seemingly overnight, that watches the watchdogs, and the watchdogs don’t like it. Bloggers are used to calling each other out at a moment’s notice when factual errors occur. MSM is not used to this. Most bloggers are humble enough to apologize and acknowledge any discovered errors. This enhances trust and credibility. MSM snorts and grumbles about upstart amateurs. This creates the perception of a coverup. Before they even knew what was happening, millions of people have sprung up around them to watch them and, eventually, replace them. And they are the only ones who don’t believe it.

  • xcrucesx

    I don’t disagree with the three pieces; there are some major problems with journalism today. I’ve been a newspaper reporter for a few years now. I’m also a loyal reader of blogs. I think both formats can complement each other. There are some things that mainstream media do that, for now at least, blogs can’t or don’t do. (Namely, large investigative pieces, though there are a few cases, such as the Rather situation, where the blogs do investigate.) And blogs are able to tap a much wider, deeper pool of expertise and opinion.

    As a reporter, though, it’s frustrating to come to work anymore. I do my absolute best to write accurate, fair stories in less and less space; I don’t cheat or lie or use unnamed sources. In most cases, I call my sources a few days after a story runs, to make sure I got everything right. But it doesn’t really matter what I do because I’m part of “the media,” and we’re all of us, to a person, stupid, evil, filthy, unpatriotic, lazy and misinformed, according to the blogosphere.

    Re: Michael Martine’s comment on corrections. Some reporters fear printing corrections because they fear they’ll lose their jobs. Where I work, if you make more than three mistakes in a calendar year, you’re put on suspension; make any more, and you’re eligible for firing. All this shows up during your annual evaulation. These mistakes could be huge, they could be relatively minor. Doesn’t matter. Our editor doesn’t care about trying to create the most accurate account of the truth possible. Instead, the emphasis is on zero tolerance.

  • Senator_MJM

    The blogsphere wouldn’t have been created if it wasn’t necessary due to millions of reasonable people tired of over 3 decades of an information monopoly that became its own political party, and has reported only information that would support or enhance its agenda. The old media have no one to blame but themselves.

  • Bad Luck

    This is my first comment ever. I definitely agree with the basic premise re the media: that they are largely untrustworthy and reserve for themselves the proclivity to cover up their own errors while magnifying those of everyone else. Additionally, my personal feeling is that they think that they just have to know some of the facts regarding a story before they “authoritatively” write about it. I say this based on my limited exposure as a 19 y.o. marine in VietNam to “journalists” who would swamp us after we came back from a patrol – they’d ask us everything about what happened. My suspicion was (as still remains to this day) that they file their reports as if they were out there with us. I suspect that’s what they continue to do today (i.e., file their “authoritative” reports from Bagdhad based on piecemeal info (usually incomplete) that they culled from multiple sources. I feel many in the public are beginning to see the duplicity and arrogance of many in the media and are now voting with their feet. Many in the media, undoubtedly will have to become honarable and report even things that they don’t like/agree with, or look for another line of work.

  • Eileen

    “…millions of reasonable people tired of over 3 decades of an information monopoly that became its own political party, and has reported only information that would support or enhance its agenda. The old media have no one to blame but themselves.”

    Bingo, Senator. Unfortunately, clearly they STILL don’t get that truism. And they also don’t get the fact that they’re dust in the wind due to their arrogant failure to give us FACTS, nothing but the FACTS, without their twisted, politically biased spin regarding not only what they’ve determined ‘is’ the news, but the way in which they distort it. ‘Fair and balanced reporting’ has become a ghost of the past, a chimera, a tumbleweed tale.

    I recently connected with a news writer/producer for ABC, who lamented the inherent control and bias she encounters…even as she professed her own left wing bias. She’s ready to get out due to the box she finds herself in. Yearning for fair and balanced reporting even by those who produce the news And admit their bias doesn’t survive in the current club. Bingo again. Even the well meaning within the profession can’t fight it.

    xcruscesx: I feel for you. Clearly you are a good enough writer to well express your angst, frustration and sincerity about doing your job well. Your editor’s policy re ‘mistakes’ is so telling, and completely representative of all we know to be wrong with the dinosaurs. I wish you well; it must be very difficult…

    But I must say thank God for the Internet and for blogs. The sun is shining again.

    We the people really just want the truth. And come hell or high water, I believe we’re going to find it.

  • PG

    I’d say that Posner misses a few points, including how blog links actually have the potential to increase newspapers’ advertising revenue, and the degree to which 12 million online participants increases the public’s engagement in political debate.

  • There’s an amazing look back at a series of stories from 15 years ago, when David Shaw at the LAT carefully showed how the major media revealed its bias toward abortion through word choice in news stories. You can read the look back at the National Review here:

    It’s surprising to see what reporters wrote, and then hear their comments that they are neutral in their reporting/writing.

  • ann bolyn