The rise and fall of big media

Yesterday, Scott referred to Terry Eastland’s article in the Wilson Quarterly on the “collapse of big media.” Today, Real Clear Politics features the piece, and George Will quoted from it last week.
Eastland’s analysis deserves the attention it’s getting because it considers the decline of big media in the context of its rise. Media analysts tend to overlook how anomalous the existence of a big, central media is in this country. The question of how and why we ended up with a situation in which a “most trusted man in America” could intone, night after night, “and that’s the way it is” strikes me as more interesting than the question of how and why that situation ended. To answer the former question is, I suspect, to answer the latter.
My guess is that we obtained a mock-authoritative media for two main reasons. The first was the rise of television, a centralizing medium that invited such journalism. The second was the rise of a post-World War II consensus. On the domestic side, Republicans, believing that elections could not be won by running against the New Deal, lapsed into what Barry Goldwater called “me too” Republicanism, offering “an echo, not a choice.” On the foreign policy side, Democrats broke free of the left and joined with Republicans in waging the Cold War.
Today, that bi-partisan consensus is a distant memory, and the big new medium of our times creates an envirnoment in which centralized claims about “the way things are” cannot be sustained. Thus, we’re back to a normal situation in which all voices must compete for a say.
However, as Eastland suggests at the end of his piece, there’s still room for voices that do what the MSM has always claimed to do — strive for impartiality. Blogs are unlikely to serve that niche because bloggers are so passionate — it’s passion that drives most of us to do what we do. The MSM, or its heirs, could. But there’s not much fun in it, nor has the MSM demonstrated much aptitude for the task.
JOHN agrees: There is a basic division among bloggers and other new-media types, over whether objectivity is a possible or desirable goal. Some argue forcefully that everyone is biased, objectivity is a mirage, and all that is necessary is for each of us to acknowledge his or her own biases, and then have at it.
I couldn’t disagree more. It is true, of course, that perfect objectivity in news reporting is unattainable. Every sentence a reporter writes–or doesn’t write–requires an exercise of judgment which inevitably has elements of subjectivity and even bias. But so what? It seems to me that in news reporting, as opposed to commentary, objectivity–or fairness, or impartiality, which are slightly different but closely related terms–should always be the reporter’s goal. There is such a thing as a fact. And while rating the importance of facts and organizing their presentation necessarily requires judgment, that doesn’t mean that a reporter can’t undertake the task with a reasonable level, or even a high level, of objectivity.
The position of the commentator is entirely different. A commentator relies on accurate reporting of facts as the raw material of his analysis. But the role of the commentator is to go beyond a particular set of facts; to argue from them, to place them in context, and to draw conclusions from them. A commentator can be middle of the road, of course, but he isn’t supposed to be impartial or objective in the way that a news reporter is. His perspective not only does, but should, infuse his analysis.
The traditional distinction between news reporting and “opinion” journalism, in other words, is correct. In my opinion, the worst result that could come from the rise of the new media would be for traditional media to be relieved of the burden of striving for objectivity–to adopt the view that we are all commentators now, so that no professional standard remains in place to check the tendency of mainstream reporters (almost all of whom are liberals) toward biased, and therefore inaccurate, reporting. To some degree, at least, I think this has happened.

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