Robert McChesney will get no argument from me on the vital importance of fighting to change the many ways our government policies have made possible the ongoing consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer corporate-controlled hands. Having the media controlled by roughly 20 or so megacorporations has clearly had a deleterious effect — lessening competition, squelching dissent, choking off debate, and elevating profit over the public good. But breaking the government-sanctioned monopolies of the media giants, while an essential step, is only part of the solution.
It’s kind of like upgrading a computer. We absolutely must rewire the hardware by changing the way our government regulates the media. But we must also reprogram the software by finding ways to give mainstream journalism that which it most desperately needs: a spine transplant.
Battered by the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley scandals, bloodied by the furor surrounding The New York Times‘ deeply flawed coverage during the run-up to war in Iraq, mainstream journalism is in a free fall, facing the ongoing defection of young Americans who would rather get their news from The Daily Show. And who can blame them? I’ll take a Jon Stewart rant or a Tina Fey zinger over a New York Times-plays-Charlie-McCarthy-to-Ahmad-Chalabi’s-Edgar-Bergen front-page spin-fest every time.
In biblical times, Jonah was condemned to a dark journey in the belly of a whale for his complacency and relentless triviality. Today, thanks to the Fourth Estate’s complacency and relentless triviality, the American people have been condemned to USA Today pie charts, brain-dead local news reporting, the latest on the Scott Peterson jury, and the endlessly repeated bleating of the denizens of the Beltway echo chamber.
It takes a lot of energy to swim against the prevailing current. So the vast majority of mainstream journalists head in the direction the assignment desk points them. That’s why we see so many stories tracking the results of the latest polls. Quoting polling data is now synonymous with reporting at many news organizations. As a result, polling data often become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Reporters are often reluctant to take on politicians with robust job-approval ratings. We saw it in the heady early days leading up to the Iraq War, when the president’s 77-percent rating acted like a flak jacket, a Kevlar statistic cloaking him in an aura of invincibility.
And we’re seeing it again in the coast-to-coast praise being lavished on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A New York Times editorial recently claimed “the last action hero can seemingly do no wrong” — a case of glaring hyperbole (just ask the tens of thousands of students unable to go to college next year because of the $660 million cut from higher education in the state) that never would have made it to newsprint if not for the governor’s high poll numbers.
One of the main charges leveled at The New York Times by its own public editor, Daniel Okrent, was that too often it had engaged in “hit-and-run journalism” — breaking an important story and then moving on, without sufficient follow-up. It’s a charge that could have been directed at big media in general. Our 500-channel universe doesn’t mean that we are getting 500 times the examination and investigation of worthy stories. It means we get the same narrow, conventional-wisdom wrap-ups repeated 500 times.
That’s why I am such a big fan of Internet-based reporters and bloggers. When these folks decide that something matters, they chomp down hard and refuse to let go. They’re the true pit bulls of reporting. The only way to get them off a story is to cut off their heads (and even then you need to pry their jaws open).
And because of the nature of Internet journalism, they will often start with a small story, or a piece of one — a contradictory quote, an unearthed document, a detail that doesn’t add up — that the big outlets would deem too minor. But it’s only minor until, well, it’s not. Big media can’t see the forest for the trees — until it’s assembled for them by the bloggers. That’s why the blogosphere has become the most vital and important news source in our country — and why I’m much more optimistic about the power of the Internet than McChesney is.
For proof of this power, he need look no farther than his own celebration of the grass-roots movement that derailed the Federal Communications Commission’s planned erosion of media-ownership rules — a movement that was galvanized and fueled by Internet-based activists. If, as he predicts, a tidal wave of media activism is headed our way, we have the Internet to thank for it.
This column originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of The American Prospect.