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July 3, 2005
Would A Little More Hate Make Things Right?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune runs an opinion piece by Mark Fitzgerald today bemoaning the loss of confidence for the media in today's market. He notes the recent Pew polling that shows that less than half of Americans believe that the press protects American democracy. Fitzgerald also laments the case of Diana Griego Erwin, the latest example of Exempt Media columnists that simply made up sources to create stories which matched her preconceived notions of how the world should work -- in this case, dozens of times -- with all those editorial layers about which we hear endlessly allowing it to continue for years.

Fitzgerald wonders how the press can recover from these debacles to once again capture the confidence of the American public. His answer -- to bash Bush even more:

How did we in the press fall from defender of democracy to an institution the public sees as either too arrogant or too accommodating, too much a scold or too silly to be taken seriously?

Part of it is a national mood beyond the media's control. In some ways this is the nation divided Blue and Red that Fox News or Air America portray. But Americans have also taken an unexpected turn away from news of politics and terrorism in the years since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. In its place is an intense, almost hysterical, focus these days on celebrity -- think Brangelina or TomKat -- and even on curious non-stories like the Runaway Bride.

But the press itself bears the largest responsibility for its present low estate. With their audiences shrinking, the news media are desperately chasing after readers and viewers with the light news they think will sell -- and abdicating the central mission of a free press to hold authority accountable.

First off, you have to love this effort. It's the public's fault, because after 9/11 suddenly we all became less interested in the news. Was that your experience? Did you spend the weeks after 9/11 desperately trying to turn off Fox News, MS-NBC, and other news channels?

But more than that, Fitzgerald points to the central problem with the press, the reason why people have learned to mistrust it. The central mission of a free press isn't to "hold authority accountable" -- it's to report the truth. If the truth holds authority accountable, then so be it, but to say that the press should automatically take opposition to all authority reveals a bias and a desire for foregone conclusions, the same impulse that got the best of Erwin. Fitzgerald makes clear where that bias should lead:

"It is a newspaper's duty to print news, and raise hell," Wilburt Storey thundered when he ran the Chicago Tribune during the Civil War. A century and a half later, there's another war under another Republican administration, but there hasn't been much hell raised by the press lately -- and Americans are disturbed by it.

In the Pew survey, 40 percent of the respondents said the news media were "too critical" of America -- but 38 percent also opined that the media were "too easy" on President Bush. Americans outside the Beltway see how this White House sets a daily news agenda, and how few journalists seem to have the courage or the enterprise to defy it.

Fitzgerald leaves a bit more out of this Pew poll than he includes. The people claiming that the press is too easy on Bush are primarily Democrats -- which should come as no surprise. 47% of all respondents, though, say that press criticism of the military weakens the country's defenses, a statistic that Fitzgerald conveniently leaves out. 72% believe that the press consistently favors one political party over the other. And three-quarters of all respondents think that the press is much more concerned about pandering to its audience rather than keeping them informed.

Fitzgerald hearkens back to Watergate and My Lai in his call for greater press efforts to get the Bush administration:

For instance, this administration came to Washington determined to conduct the public's business behind closed doors with unprecedented levels of secrecy -- and it has pulled it off without much challenge from the media. It is striking how a press that so cherishes the mythology of Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the mysteries of Watergate rarely mentions that the White House 30 years later is a far more secretive place. ...

Small voices can still have an outsize impact. While big media have deployed an army of reporters and cameramen covering Iraq from the ground and from Washington, it was a journalist working alone and outside the pack, Seymour Hersh, who uncovered the abuses at Abu Ghraib military prison.

No, it was the Army that uncovered the abuses at Abu Ghraib, not Hersh. Hersh sensationalized them, but the Army had already begun its investigation long before Hersh wrote about the scandal. What Hersh did was to claim that a night shift of undisciplined idiots somehow indicted the entire American military effort, and a willing press that has decided its primary mission is to embarrass and torpedo the Bush administration followed suit.

Mostly, however, the appearance of this column in the Strib makes for amusing reading. No major daily in the US has a better track record of hysterical anti-Bush rhetoric from its editorial board than the Twin Cities' primary daily. Whether it reverses itself on issues like filibusters, or gives its blessing to Gitmo-Nazi analogies, the Strib has served at the vanguard of Bush hatred. As a result, not only have people lost confidence in the newspaper, they're cancelling it in droves. In the past month, the Strib has started to deliver papers to homes that don't subscribe in an attempt to bolster its readership numbers for advertisers. I used to see a freebie once every couple of months, usually a Sunday paper, which served as a reminder of the value of home delivery. In the last month, I have received delivery at least three times a week; last week, it was almost every day.

Do you sense desperation? I certainly do.

Fitzgerald may simply be arguing for the hair of the dog that bit the press in order to alleviate its hangover, but it's bad advice. If the media wants to win our confidence, it needs to stop advocating for its own politics and start reporting the truth. Quit using single anonymous sourcing to spread rumors and gossip, do complete research, and treat all sides fairly. That will go a long way to creating the trust that the press has abused in the 30 years since Watergate.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 3, 2005 5:20 AM

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