Understanding The Left’s Grip On MediaPosted: February 18, 2014
The New Contras
Mike Gonzalez writes: Behind President Barack Obama’s gripe to Bill O’Reilly that Fox News is always unfair to him stood a deeper resentment that has poisoned the soul of progressives for some time: Hollywood and academia might still be firmly in the grip of the orthodox left, but part of the media has managed to wriggle free. Liberals still can’t get over this fact, and their rearguard actions to regain control come in different forms: some, like our President’s objections, are innocuously transparent and amusing; others, like a recent research report on the future of media by the Brookings Institution, are more circuitous and perhaps more worrying.
In the joint paper by two of its heavy hitters, the well-known and influential Washington think tank lays out a plan that would reverse some key media trends of the past few years, such as the growth of partisan commentary, citizen journalism and Americans’ new-found ability to readily find opinions they like. The paper was authored by the Vice President for Governance and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Darrel West, and Web Content and Digital Media Coordinator, Beth Stone. They write in the most academic and detached of tones and if you weren’t careful, you wouldn’t notice how some of their recommendations would silence the new diversity of views. They make clear from the start that what motivates them is primarily the impact that the revolution in media has had on policy-making, which is one reason we should all care.
While talk radio and FOX grab much of the attention, what really broke the left’s control over media was the Internet. Before its advent, one needed a large investment in a printing press or a broadcast tower to engage a mass audience; afterward, all one needed was a few hundred dollars for a basic computer and Internet service. The web shattered barriers to entry and, suddenly, pent up demand for information free of non-progressive bias met an onrush of supply.
The liberalization has been vast. Advances in mobile telephone technology now makes it possible for an ever growing portion of humanity to do what only a few cameramen and photographers working for premier outlets were able to do just 15 years ago: record the news as it happens and send it around the world seconds later. One tragic, very well-known example is that of the citizen journalists in Tehran who recorded the murder of the young female demonstrator named Neda at the hands of state security agents, a crime which revealed to many the brutal nature of the Iranian government. Citizen journalists, of all political hues, can now connect with the world.
Social media like Twitter, meanwhile, have taken the place of wire services like The Associated Press or Reuters, at least in the segment of the market devoted to the delivery of raw news, the transmission of events without comment, context or background. Twitter beat the wires with both the execution of Osama bin Laden and Whitney Houston’s overdose. In the latter case, the niece of the person who found Houston’s body quickly tweeted out the news. Because every niece or nephew of witnesses to history will henceforth have access to social media, AP and Reuters will find it increasingly impossible to succeed at one of the things at which we wire service squirrels used to compete and excel, being the first with the news. To be sure, it is now incumbent on the consumer of news to be the filter and buyer beware is the order of the day. But the rapid dissemination of news is no longer the sole province of wire service journalists. Everybody, no matter his or her views, can now be a wire service hand.
These trends have commoditized raw news, the end of the business that is as undifferentiated as copper traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. This part of the business now sells at a price that is set by the market, with low margins. The business that now commands a premium is commentary, the differentiated part. When CBO chief Douglas Elmendorf says that Obamacare will “disincentivize work” that is undifferentiated news transmission; when Avik Roy writes on Forbes.com, “Bored with your job? No worries—now you can quit, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers,” that is differentiated commentary; Roy has added value by interpreting the news event. Straight news is nearly free while commentary is rising. This is one of the reasons why FOX and MSNBC is succeeding and CNN is not.
The use of infographics, graphs and videos, meanwhile, has further democratized information absorption, making it easier now to connect with people who are more visual than verbal but who nonetheless vote. This transition has been especially rough for old-style journalists. In a recent New Yorker profile of the digital pioneer Ezra Klein—who was just walked away from the website he built at the Washington Post, Wonkblog, to do his own thing at Vox Media, a group of websites—the paper’s former managing editor put Klein’s initial struggles this way: “A lot of people at the Washington Post in traditional reporting roles lacked an appreciation that story telling on the web can be a lot more engaging if you don’t rely just on words.”
Much of the liberalization has been a function of the very nature of digital journalism. The emphasis on straight news and words was tied to the constraints ofa time when, as web guru Clay Shirky likes to describe it, we imported wood from Canada, pulped it, spread ink all over it and had neighborhood children on bikes throw the final product under our cars in the driveway. “The web explodes that constraint,” the New Yorker quoted Klein as saying.
Looking back, it is hard to even think that a mere 25 years ago, a handful of liberal anchormen and a dozen or so newspaper columnists pretty much controlled how the nation saw or read the national news. Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner and the others, all good Americans to be sure but liberal to the core, talked to us every night and gave us the news that they had selected to be the news. They were pretty authoritative, and had the power to be.
Cronkite even used to close his broadcasts by intoning, “and that’s the way it is, today” followed by that day’s date. They insisted that they were just giving us news and that they were impartial, and they did sound dispassionate, but reality was otherwise. By choosing what was news, what they prioritized, the tone they used and whom to interview, the old set of journalists were able to bias the news. Comment, context and background in the transmission of news massage the message. It wasn’t just news we were getting. When Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War the gig was up, and LBJ knew it, saying famously, “If I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost the nation.” The nation really did pay attention to what Uncle Walter said.
What we had, then, was a liberal version of the news sold as homespun common sense, pretty much the same way Pete Seeger surreptitiously worked socialist lyrics into banjo music. So, in other words, we have always had news with a point of view, the only difference is that today the pretense is on its way out and what’s hot is the openly opinionated.
What we know
Because explicit commentary is winning the day with the ratings, journalists are being forced to drop the façade of impartiality. Now we know for sure what always suspected, that Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell and Nina Totenberg are very liberal, and we know this because they’ve outed themselves. We know that FOX leans right and MSNBC leans left, and the consumer of news is able to use this knowledge to filter the information they provide. Sure, NBC, ABC and CBS insist on maintaining the old pretense of neutrality as does—of all outlets in the world—The New York Times, but we are much better off now that many outlets have explicit points of view. In a way, we have gone back to the future. Pamphlets and newspapers in the 18th and for most of the 19th century were out front with their political predispositions and many were in fact outright party organs. Only when the source of revenue shifted from party coffers to ads from companies selling detergent or breakfast cereal did newspapers adopt the affectation that they were impartial…
- UNDERSTANDING the left’s grip on media…. (pjmedia.com)
- Fact-challenged liberal blogger Ezra Klein promises new way of delivering news (twitchy.com)
- Ezra Klein Is Joining Vox Media as Web Journalism Asserts Itself (nytimes.com)
- The Media Equation: Ezra Klein Is Joining Vox Media as Web Journalism Asserts Itself (nytimes.com)
- The End Of The Wunderkind (theawl.com)
- Failing Liberals Turn To Oppression To Hold On To Power (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- The Washington Post is De-Kleining (krugman.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Ezra Klein Leaving Washington Post – Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com)
- Embracing media myths – and the ‘golden age’ fallacy (mediamythalert.wordpress.com)
- In Scandal, Turkey’s Leaders May Be Losing Their Tight Grip on News Media (nytimes.com)