Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fringe Factor

Historian Rick Perlstein wrote an excellent piece of media criticism last Friday which I wanted to call everyone’s attention to.

In particular, this:
The problem is not the Web. Anti-JFK rallies "revealing" to every school child in Orange County, California that Communists planned to colonize the United States by the year 1970 drew bigger crowds than Tea Parties today, with nary a blogger among them.

The problem is that elite media gatekeepers have abandoned their moral mandate to stigmatize uncivil discourse. Instead, too many outlets reward it. In fact, it is an ironic token of the ideological confusions of our age that they do so in the service of upholding what they understand to be a cornerstone of civility: the notion that every public question must be framed in terms of two equal and opposite positions, the "liberal" one and the "conservative" one, each to be afforded equal dignity, respect — and (the more crucial currency) equal space. This has made the most mainstream of media outlets comically easy marks for those actively working to push public discourse to extremes.

Don't blame the minister and his bait-and-switch bonfire either. Once upon a time anticommunist book burnings and threats of book burnings were not unheard of. The difference is that Associated Press reporters did not feel obliged to show up. That shift in news values, not the rise of the Internet, is the most profound way that times have changed.

I think this is correct, however I think Perlstein is remiss in completely discounting the influence of the internet. Certainly our news media’s suckiness is no one’s fault but the media’s. However, I do think part of the problem is that the news media has been so freaked out over competition from web-based “news” sources -- blogs and the like -- that they’ve chucked all judgment by the wayside.

Perlstein is right, news values have changed. But there's a reason. It's because news is a business and there are boards of directors who must be coddled and stockholders who must be pleased and profitability is an issue (even though newspapers remain insanely profitable, for bean counters it’s never profitable enough) so everyone is kinda flailing about looking for a way to stay relevant in this changing environment. This means the news media has abandoned what Perlstein calls its “moral mandate” in a rush to cover every bit of chatter and gossip on the internet. It’s like the entire news media has decided to become the National Enquirer, hanging out at the mall food court and deciding that their very future depends on covering the conversation they overhear, most of which is completely irrelevant.

Just because people are talking about Snookie and Area 51 and a new diet fad and FEMA camps doesn’t mean the news media has to cover it. The media decided it was in competition with the internet and decided to cover whatever idiocy we bloggers are chatting about without bothering to apply any judgment to these stories. Is WikiLeaks news? Yes. Is everything on the internet news? No.

You know, my sister is absolutely convinced that sometime around 2004 there was a nuclear incident of some kind which the government is hiding from us. She's convinced of this because she knows too many people with brain tumors and health issues all of a sudden, while the fact that we’re getting older and happen to know more people of an age where illnesses crop up hasn’t occurred to her. But hey, if she’s lucky, maybe Anderson Cooper or the Associated Press will devote some time to her theory. It's on the internet, after all.