Beginning any minute now, members of the media will join together to try to take collective stock of their own performance during this past election season, and if the muted self-criticism of the WMD debacle was any indication, they will find themselves lacking, but only just a little. In one of those pre-emptive "Physician, heal thyself" moments, two weeks ago the Committee of Concerned Journalists released the results of a poll designed to gauge the profession's assessment of the 2004 election coverage. The vast majority of those polled gave themselves rather lackluster grades. The survey discovered that only 3 percent of those journalists polled gave the press an A grade for election coverage, while 27 percent gave the news media a B. At the same time, 42 percent gave the coverage a C, with a full 27 percent offering a grade of D or F. The Pew poll also found that "By large majorities [journalists] feel the news media has become sidetracked by trivial issues, has been too reactive and has focused too much on the inside baseball that doesn't really matter to voters."
Looking more deeply into the problem, respondents offered up their views that print media offered a superior picture of reality than its competitors, particularly cable TV. Fifty-eight percent thought the news received from newspapers was deserving of an A or B, with just under 50 percent offering similarly high grades to online sites (46 percent) and news magazines (45 percent). Just 30 percent gave As or Bs to radio news; 22 percent gave such grades to cable; only 16 percent to network news; and 11 percent to local news.
Just who is the primary culprit, according to those in the trenches? A sampling of some of the written responses reprinted in the survey shows that the best that journalists can do is simply blame their colleagues for being too lazy. But this hardly does justice to a complex and multifaceted problem. As Todd Gitlin recently wrote in Mother Jones, "If ever there were a time for unbridled journalism, this would be it: terrorist mayhem, war, corporate scandal, ecological crisis, economic upheaval. Public passion and curiosity have been stoked. But the potential investigators have been, to a considerable degree, otherwise occupied. Historians will someday burrow among the musty artifacts of America's supercharged 24/7 news organizations—TV with its glammed-up sets, its convention skyboxes and satellite feeds; the well-fed correspondents on a first name basis with second-rate sources; the newsmagazines with their gloss, gossip, and fluff—and they will rub their eyes and marvel that a nation possessed of such an enormous industry ostensibly specializing in the gathering and distribution of facts could yet remain so befogged."
Indeed, one might have expected that the reawakening of history in recent decades—following so much time in the frozen space of the Cold War—might have had the effect of awakening the American media as well. This, too, has proven a naïve fantasy. As Edward Wasserman recently wrote in the Miami Herald, over the past several months "The established news media were nowhere on public-policy matters. Issues that should have been their meat and potatoes – such as the adequacy of homeland security or remedies to stanch job losses – were largely untouched…Instead, the agenda was set by partisans, via political advertising and committed freelance efforts. Time and again, established media essentially reacted to issues rammed through by outside groups." Wasserman points to a problem in the political discourse without noting that the right has, for decades, dominated in exactly this area. We pointed out in a two-part series in this column that wealthy conservatives and corporations have, over the last 30 years, developed a well-funded grant-making operation that keeps conservative writers and pundits (and now attack groups) flush with cash. This infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars has flooded mainstream media outlets with charge after charge of liberal perfidy, and has made liberalism the enemy of choice for conservatives, second perhaps only to al Qaeda. (And during the final cycle of the last election, a few conservatives in the media went so far as to nearly equate the two.)
More and more, the media invite manipulation by those who understand how to earn coverage but care nothing for evidence or even accuracy. During the past election, entire weeks of news broadcasts and countless pages in newspapers and magazines were wasted on a litany of baseless and irrelevant issues while Iraq burned, the economy remained stagnant, and more and more Americans lost their health care coverage. As we await the media postmortems—always offered more in sorrow than in anger—we must ask ourselves if "laziness" is a sufficient excuse. Look under the surface of the manufactured debate and one finds a deeper and more disturbing pattern that continues to go—despite all evidence—unreported.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.