Tuesday, October 19, 2004

How Will We Trust Them Again?

Hugh Hewitt's symposia (that's the proper plural of symposium) provide us low-traffic bloggers with a great outlet for expression, a chance to be linked to by one of the big players in the blogosphere, and for me, a topic that acts as a gentle push to get me writing. (All right, not so much a gentle push as a screaming red-hot urge.)

But I've also considered that besides being a clearinghouse for varying opinion, these symposia could also act as a sort of virtual think tank. Questions could do more than solicit personal views; they could seek solutions to pressing problems.

Here's the pressing problem that's been nagging at me all summer. "Nagging at me" is an understated way of saying that this issue has often had me at a slow simmer, occasionally at a furious boil, and one or two times fully boiling over.

We know that the mainstream media is working hard to unseat President Bush, even to the destruction of their own reputations. (See: Dan Rather, cf "memogate") And we know that after President Bush wins reelection, the press isn't going to suddenly start working with him. They will continue to undermine his second term either independently, or as collaborators with the Democratic party.

The "fourth estate" (or in American terms, the "fourth branch of government") has great power, but unlike the executive and legislative branches, that power is not granted to them through an electoral process. Yet they shape the political discourse in this country and they steer the ship of state just as surely as if they had a public mandate to place their hands on the wheel. (The judicial branch isn't elected either, and its abuses of power deserve examination as well, but not today and not in this post.)

Through its choices of what to report and how, we have seen the media distort the record of President Bush and ignore the obvious failings of Senator Kerry. They couldn't stop talking about the President's national guard service, but wouldn't touch Kerry's lies about his Vietnam service. They trumpeted Joe Wilson's claims about the "sixteen words" and launched the "Bush lied!" meme that continues unabated, yet failed to notice when Wilson's claims were proven false. They distorted the findings of the 9/11 commission, the Butler report, and the Duelfer report. They won't tell us anything but bad news about the burgeoning democracy in Iraq.

The hard work of bloggers and their readers revealed the rot at the core of CBS News. And though we had a blessed few days watching the media sharks consuming one of their own, the feeding frenzy was short-lived. Why is Dan Rather is still working at CBS News? And why was CBS's Bob Schieffer allowed to moderate the third Presidential debate, during which he behaved like a member of Senator Kerry's own campaign staff, teeing up the ball for Kerry multiple times?

We cannot vote them out of office, and they know it.

Although we do not elect the mainstream news media, we do have some control over them. We give them power or take it away with each choice we make regarding our media consumption. Even so, falling ratings for the major news outlets (with the notable exception of Fox News) and decreased readership of newspapers have not convinced the news media to alter their ways. Instead, the news media are like suicide bombers, willing to destroy themselves in order to further an agenda.

Thanks to the blogosphere, the memos used by CBS News as a means of affecting the November election were revealed as forgeries. We caught them in the act this time. But what about last time? And more importantly, what about next time? The next time someone wants to create damaging 30-year-old memos and deliver them to CBS News, you can bet they'll go to the trouble of obtaining a 30-year-old typewriter. How can we be sure this doesn't happen? How can we be sure it isn't happening already? How do you know that what you heard on the news today is true? It's sort of an existential crisis.

In a free society, there is a necessary level of trust between the citizens and the news media. CBS News is hoping that the trust hasn't been destroyed. But with their actions they have not just destroyed the trust placed in CBS, but in all the mainstream news media. As citizens who depend on the news media for information, how do we respond to the increasingly manipulative media gatekeepers who will do anything to further their agenda and retain their power? Can the trust be repaired? And how do we ensure that those who betray that trust face the consequences of their actions? How do we ensure that there are no more "Rathergates"?

Mr. Hewitt, may I submit this as a subject for your next symposium?


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