Thursday, September 4, 2008


I have to admit that I'm totally flummoxed by what's happening to all levels of the media. Sarah Palin appears to have caused some sort of rip in the fabric of space-time and it's selectively affecting the brains of anybody associated with any aspect of the press. Any pretense of objectivity seems to have gone out the window. The problem is the most pronounced with the cable outlets but affects other media strata to greater and lesser degrees.

Mickey Kaus has an interesting theory on what's going on:
What we're witnessing, I think, is the death of a media paradigm that we lived with comfortably for, oh, the last year or two. And John Edwards is to blame! Here's the relevant typology:

Model One: There's the press, and the public. The press only prints "facts" that are checked and verified. That's all the public ever finds out about. The press functions as "gatekeeper."

Model Two: Model One broke down with the rise of blogs, which (along with tabloids and cable) often discuss rumors that are not "verified." The public finds out about these rumors, as rumors. And it turns out that blogging obsessively about rumors is a pretty good way to smoke out the truth (see, e.g., Dan Rather).

But in Model Two, the rumors still don't get reported in the "mainstream media"--the respectable print press, the non-cable networks--until they are properly confirmed. Blogs and tabloids are a sort of intermediate nethersphere between public and the elite MSM that serves as a proving ground where the truth or falseness of the "undernews" gets hashed out. Stories that are true then graduate to the MSM.

Model Three: I thought Model Two would be a workable model for years, until either the MSM itself went totally online or until almost all voters stopped paying attention to it. I was wrong! The Edwards scandal did Model Two in. For months, the MSM failed to report the increasingly plausible rumors of John Edwards' extramarital affair even as it became the widespread topic of conversation in blogs, in the National Enquirer, and among political types. The disconnect turned out to be painfully embarrassing for the MSM, especially when the rumors were finally "verified" with Edwards' confession. A lot of what we are seeing now is the MSM not wanting to go through another Edwards experience.

Why can't the MSM bear to fulfill its Model Two role? a) No press person likes to not be the center of attention. You want to talk about what people want to talk about. That's how you make money, for one thing. And maintaining a disciplined silence on a rampant undernews rumor--even an unverified one--made too many reporters feel as if they worked for Pravda; b) Suppressing an undernews scandal about a Democrat subjected the MSM to charges of pro-liberal political bias (to which respectable organizations are particularly sensitive, because they are largely true); and c) even much of the left was disgusted by the MSM's behavior regarding the Edwards rumor.

We are now, I think, making the next logical leap, to a model in which unverified rumors about public figures are discussed and assessed not just in the blogosphere or the unrespectable tabs but in the MSM itself. I say welcome! With NYT reporters and bloggers all openly discussing unverified reports,, whatever is true will become un-unverified that muhch faster. And the public is proving, by and large, to be quite capable of distinguishing between stories that are true and rumors that are still being investigated.
But this explanation doesn't quite explain the Palin feeding frenzy, followed by the subsequent rapture over the Palin speech. That, coupled with the general "aww, screw it" attitude on any sort of commitment to little things like facts and objective truth, seems more like the kind of thing you see in teenagers as they're converting to bipolar disorder.

It's pretty clear that the press is now migrating away from the island of meta-stability that it has occupied for most of the Age of Television. That's inevitable, given that the Age of Television is over. But we can't pretend that information delivery is anything close to reliable while the migration is occurring.

Being a moderate news junky, I can't estimate how the newly-labile media paradigm will affect the average voter. It's possible that all the sturm und drang that occurs in the blogs and the cable networks is completely transparent to the average voter. But there are an awful lot of people now who get their news from the more exotic tiers of the media infrastructure. I hope that they check their facts early and often.

No comments: