Disinter-MEDIA-tion

Mon, 19 May 2008 16:59:17 +0000

Stan picks up on Brad DeLong's posting of Ezra Klein's thoughtful op-ed in the Los Angeles Times to address Brad's oft-asked question, "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?" To understand Brad's exasperation, I think we should consider three progressively more challenging meanings of the word "better" in these posts: competent, professional, and inspirational.

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1) Competent

Many of Brad's WoW posts just point out a misuse of facts in an article. In these cases, all he is asking for is that facts be cited in the article to back up any opinions quoted and that facts be checked in the story. It is embarrasing just how many times the problems with the press corps are matters of competence. Say all you want about the challenges of the new media age, but there is no excuse for the degree of factual inaccuracy in reporting these days.

2) Professional

To say that an activity is professional is to say that there are standards of conduct for undertaking it. In the news profession, that means not merely citing facts, but citing all relevant facts. It means valuing accuracy over balance when presenting information to the public and the two don't perfectly coincide. It means acknowledging mistakes when you make them and correcting them as soon as possible. It means a commitment to doing a better job today than you did yesterday. Plenty of Brad's WoW posts just seem to wonder why those in the media don't hold themselves to higher standards.

3) Inspirational

All professions that comprise a society have to be prepared to lead, not merely follow, when the need arises. Competency and professionalism are necessary but not sufficient for this type of leadership. It requires the people at the highest level of news organizations to measure their worth by how much their organizations improve society. It requires them to not sink to the lowest common denominator but demonstrate the value in a higher road. Ezra gets it right when he writes:

This gaffe-hunting makes up a substantial slice of contemporary campaign journalism. It is certainly the part that candidates fear most. And it is poisonous to our polity. You often hear that the media are too liberal or too conservative, too corporate or too effete. But to politicians, they are something else altogether: too trivializing and too intent on ferreting out moments of humiliation. They rob politicians of their ability to campaign in an honorable or spontaneous way.

Nobody is forcing the news organizations to do this. Following up on Stan's post, if others in society are doing it, then that provides more of a reason, not less, for the professional media to avoid it rather than accelerate it. Ezra then cites what will likely be the defining image of media irrelevance for years to come:

Even when newspapers and news networks furnish forums at which the candidates can speak to voters at length rather than in sound bites, the process is perverted. Take the debates, which began as substantive clashes, until the moderators grew bored by the same old policy disputes and began to ask questions that would provide juicy clips for the next day's news. The process culminated in the now-infamous ABC News debate in which moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos abandoned substance for the first hour and focused instead on lapel pins, lunch partners from decades ago and electability concerns. You know, the big issues.

No one had a gun to Stephanopoulos and Gibson's heads to do this, and even if they did, the two of them should have taken the proverbial bullet rather than embarrass themselves by hosting this charade. They might do some good as martyrs for their profession, since they were doing us no good as moderators.

The best word for what's going on is disintermediation, as I've written it in the title. The word came about in a financial context, but the same idea is at work in the news media. A lack of confidence in the process is causing citizens to disengage from traditional media in favor of alternatives. Not all alternatives are better, but some will be. It's not clear how much of the traditional media will survive the shift, but given their missed opportunities, they have no one to blame but themselves for their declining reputations and increasing irrelevance.