Monday, November 01, 2004

The Big Loser of Campaign 2004

There's going to be a lot of people making this conclusion, and it's a fairly obvious one. Mind you, the big question is, how did this happen?

I have a somewhat tenuous theory about it, but I think it fits the known facts about modern-day American journalism.

First, a supposition: the people who are currently in charge of Big Media -- managing editors, senior journalists, journalism teachers, and pundits -- came of age, and were influenced by, the late 1960s and early 1970s, the era of Vietnam and Watergate. This is the era when activist journalism had its heyday, culminating with the downfall of President Nixon and the end of American involvement in Vietnam.

Watergate is the most visible consequence of the concept of media as "an agent of social change." This is the journalism philosophy that enables journalism to set the public agenda, with a particular viewpoint, and results in a major event favorable to that viewpoint. (Of course, the problem with this is that it clashes with the notion that journalism should be, if not objective, then unbiased in reporting both sides of an issue, which is the conventional view of our society.)

Thirty years later, the Watergate-era reporters are at or near retirement age, and the heights that activist journalism reached during Watergate have yet to be reached again.

2004, in short, represented the last chance of the Watergate-era journalists, as well as their proteg├ęs, to score a major story and bring down a world leader. Many of them will not be around in 2008, due to retirements; it's a fact of life.

So what went wrong?

Well, there's a little saying the modern-day activists like to spout: "the ends justify the means." In the context of journalism, it's an excuse for using methods to secure information that don't meet a high standard. Activist journalists are especially prone to being infected by this concept, and Mary Mapes (who was working on Bush's background) is no exception. This is why CBS News wanted to work with documents of dubious veracity; the bigger story (Bush's questionable history with the National Guard) was worth the risk.

The trouble with this approach is, of course, it gets you in trouble if you get caught. And in the age of the Internet, the chances of getting caught are very high indeed.

Even liberal boomers get fossilized. I don't believe Big Media ever fully appreciated the power of the Internet, and especially the power of the blogosphere, in shaping the public agenda. Certainly the people at CBS News didn't, which is why the Rathergate situation took them by surprise.

News media is, right now, in a transitional age. Cable news and the Internet (not just the blogosphere, but other websites as well) have emerged as legitimate venues for conveying information to the masses. The mainstream outlets who can work with the new technology as a whole unit -- by using them to fact check, to start a dialogue with sources, to get alternative information -- will have better stories, and can survive in the 21st century. Those outlets who don't -- who dismiss the New Media as amateurs, propagandists, etc. -- will wind up marginalized.

One other point. People who are computer-literate enough to use the Internet are also literate enough to recognize bias or self-interest. Mainstream media journalists, if they are honest with themselves, should either declare their viewpoint openly (which will enable them to practice activist journalism with a clear conscience) or make the effort to be fair (which means really taking the time to interview and interpret all sides.) It may not make them winners, but at least it'll be a step towards not becoming The Big Loser of Campaign 2008.