Monday, December 27, 2004

Saving the MSM from themselves

In light of the questions raised by this issue, Hugh Hewitt asks an intriguing question today -- one that's occupied my mind for quite some time. In fact, I posted some similar questions way back here.
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"?

Hugh writes:

How will MSM regain lost trust, and thus lost audience? To begin, they would first have to admit they have a problem, and there is little evidence they are inclined to do so.

But if they were so inclined, the very first step would be publication on the internet of biographies of every reporter/producer on the news team along with that individual's responses to a series of questions on important issues of the day. Everyone brings baggage to the reporting of the news. Some of us lay that background out for the world to see -- most reporters don't. A sure sign of something to hide is the hiding of something, and the unwillingness of MSM to tell us about their staffs is a giveaway that the lack of intellectual diversity in the newsroom is a scandal.

What questions would I like answered? Very simple ones: For whom did the reporter vote for president in the past five elections? Do they attend church regularly and if so, in which denomination? Do they believe that the late-term abortion procedure known as partial birth abortion should be legal? Do they believe same sex marriage ought to be legal? Did they support the invasion of Iraq? Do they support drilling in ANWR?

If I know the answers to those ten questions, I can quickly decide what degree of trust with which to approach a reporter's reporting. Even "low trust" reporters can earn trust, of course, but degrees of suspicion are a fact of life. Only MSM pretends otherwise, and bloggers have exposed that pretension as the fiction it really is, even if most of MSM want to continue the charade.

I disagree with the esteemed Mr. Hewitt on this. I don't require a full disclosure of the personal opinions and beliefs of every person in the news media. In fact, I wouldn't work for any business that required me to do such a thing.

Fox News has become one news source I trust -- as much as I trust any mainstream news outlet, that is. But it's not because I know what their reporters think about abortion or drilling in the ANWR. It's because in my view they do not repeatedly assault the values that I, and most Americans, hold dear. They have not set themselves against the residents of Red State America (or even those of us in the Blue State parts of flyover country). Their reporters do not write lengthy "The Sky is Falling" diatribes against "Jesusland."

(Certainly others think Fox is as biased as I think CBS News is. If so, then Fox acts as an antidote to the others.)

I understand, I think, what Hugh is getting at. To an extent I agree that if a news organizaation cannot rid itself of its biases, the least it could do is reveal those biases. Gone are the days when every market had its competing left-wing and right-wing newspapers, but at least then you knew where each newspaper stood. The lack of competition has allowed for the illusion of non-bias in the media.

Therefore, if there's one thing that the mainstream news could benefit from, it's competition. Here, again, is where Fox News has proven useful. The moderate (or some would say right wing bias) of Fox News has worked to reveal the biases of their competitors. This is a good thing. It's also a good thing that other news outlets have noticed that the increased ratings for Fox have accompanied their own decreasing ratings. Competition is iron sharpening iron.

Other news outlets could benefit from figuring out what makes Fox News different. It's too simplistic to suggest (as they do in as sneering a manner as possible) that Fox is simply "NASCARizing" its news. But until the mainstream news media gets over themselves, they will continue to harbor the elitist illusion that they're somehow "better" than Fox, and they'll simply continue to give us more of the same.

More: Further thoughts here.


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