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Journalism - ethics + activism = propaganda
September 22, 2009 11:21 PM   Subscribe

Mark Bowden tells us "The Story Behind the Story" in the October issue of The Atlantic: "With journalists being laid off in droves, ideologues have stepped forward to provide the “reporting” that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition. A case-study of our post-journalistic age."

Related, from The Atlantic archives: The Massless Media by William Powers, January/February 2005. The recent stories about ACORN have similar implications.
posted by IvoShandor (62 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
because of course all of these journalists were totally non-biased and never repeated what their sources told them verbatim in the past! Especially not on fox news. Just look at the 2000 election, or the run up to the Iraq war! Truly example of impartial, accurate reporting that informed and enriched the American public.

Seriously, Don't journalists every get tired of idolizing themselves in their own medium?
posted by delmoi at 11:52 PM on September 22, 2009 [22 favorites]


As the value of objectivity has declined in recent years across most media, I'd been hoping that some kind of fact verification service or balanced news aggregator would step in to fill the credibility gap. Something like Brill's content for the web. I guess I'm still capable of thinking there are other people interested in the news willing to question the credibility of their sources; naive I know.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:57 PM on September 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


It seems there's a race going on between Rupert Murdoch (and his cronies) trying to discredit The Government and its Big Bad Socialist Taxes versus progressives trying to discredit the nonsense that passes off as news.

I'm not sure when this happened (early 90s maybe?), but the main issue is that journalism became a branding exercise, and brands have longevity. People still trust what they hear on TV because there's this assumption that there's fact checkers in place and that news networks are legitimately competing to gain your trust. I remember a Mefi post not too long ago that linked to surveys where most of the respondents thought the FCC regulated news networks to ensure they were not outright lying; this misconception only adds to the problem.

At the same time, if detailed scrutiny of out-of-context clips (ala the Sotomayor clips) by 24-hour news networks continues, we're likely to be left with high-ranking politicians who know how to consistently and flawlessly lie with a straight face. Or worse, politicians who actually believe the types of illogical arguments you hear from the right.
posted by spiderskull at 11:59 PM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure partisan reporting predated journalists being laid off. The quest for information remains the same. The economics of providing information have changed and it is clearly a damn site cheaper to regurgitate soundbites than craft an angle, and easier to have someone feed you news than employ journalists to go out and look for it.

Way back in the mid nineties when Chris Morris was parodying broadcast news with The Day Today and Brass Eye, the writing was clearly on the wall - news had to be dumbed down, sensationalised, and pick a side to qualify as acceptable fodder for the masses and be able to compete for attention. He was largely parodying the UK, where some standards were, at least, being held fast by the BBC.

Also recommended (although it is about the UK, the underlying trend is still the same): Nick Davies' excellent Flat Earth News.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:05 AM on September 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


As the value of objectivity has declined in recent years across most media, I'd been hoping that some kind of fact verification service or balanced news aggregator would step in to fill the credibility gap.

How could that happen when the right and the left routenely disagree about the basic facts? each side would just claim the 'balanced aggregator' was just shilling for the other side.
posted by delmoi at 12:05 AM on September 23, 2009


delmoi, he admits that in the linked piece when he remarks that every single major news outlet ran the clips as they found them, without even attributing them to the VerumSerum place, much less providing context or explanation. The article is not, in fact, about how great CNN is and how awful blogs are.

I mean, I was all ready to be angry at it, and it certainly has its issues. Claims of objectively become more dangerous the more honestly they're made and the more believable they are, and part of me would prefer that people stop making such claims. On the other hand, the descent of the national debate into the status of an infinite pitfight sucks too. It would be nice if everyone stopped caring so much about winning and started caring a little more about doing the right thing. That's hard to do, though, when journalism (mainstream and not) keeps sliding further towards the "scoring easy points" end of the spectrum.
posted by kavasa at 12:07 AM on September 23, 2009


While it is of course depressing to learn of reporters losing their jobs, I haven't seen much coverage on the other carnage going on in the newspaper industry - the elimination of editors from the news gathering & publishing chain.

Last year I got involved in UK politics, and we've been busily generating lots of publicity supporting our cause.

No shortage of willing reporters to help us out, but we've noticed that far too many of these stories contain grammar / factual errors. Also, text / letters we provided were published, excerpted or in entirety, complete with grammar / spelling errors.

This wasn't confined to one newspaper, no we noticed the same problem in at least one national chain here in the UK. Getting a little chatty with some of the "editors", I quickly learned they were reporters themselves, with news gathering responsibilities and nobody really took ownership of or responsibility for the the information published.

The article linked mentions:
What gave newspapers their value was the mission and promise of journalism—the hope that someone was getting paid to wade into the daily tide of manure, sort through its deliberate lies and cunning half-truths, and tell a story straight.
So the elimination of editing time clearly isn't in the publics interests - keep in mind, these errors, as noticeable as they were to us, represented just the tip of the iceberg.

As the article points out, what about agents who are willingly injecting misinformation into the system, who have an agenda?

Seems like in the race to acquire content for publication, first on the newspapers twitter stream, then web site (with FaceBook driving link traffic) and finally tabloid or broadsheet these organisations are sacrificing no minor degree of integrity.

We've had to contest half truths put forward by sides opposing our views, and we've been fortunate in that we've got some highly motivated and time rich members and, in the grand scheme of things, what we're doing down here in East London isn't so damn critical that we can't easily recover from some misinformation; in fact that helps draw attention to ourselves.

But (and not to knock anyone trying to help us), should stories be gotten right the first time? At least that's why I grew up trusting the print media.

Retractions and corrections were rare events.

What we're observing, at least here in the UK, is retractions and corrections as the cost of doing business, a necessary expense to getting a story out faster than the next newspaper.

Seems like the profession is being de-professionalised.
posted by Mutant at 12:47 AM on September 23, 2009 [11 favorites]


I wouldn't get too dewy-eyed about the past majesty of journalism. It's easy to forget that it's always been mostly shit, just that there was a lot more of it out there, and thus more cream on top. I would say the ratio has simply tilted to a different kind of (admittedly shittier) shit.
posted by smoke at 1:41 AM on September 23, 2009


smoke: "I wouldn't get too dewy-eyed about the past majesty of journalism. It's easy to forget that it's always been mostly shit, just that there was a lot more of it out there, and thus more cream on top. I would say the ratio has simply tilted to a different kind of (admittedly shittier) shit."

That doesn't mean that there's no reason to mourn the loss of the cream. Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?
posted by JHarris at 1:50 AM on September 23, 2009


It definitely could I believe, but over here (Australia) it would be from our ABC television, not a paper. Perhaps I'm not being charitable enough to O/S papers. Certainly in Australia, all of ours have always been mostly shit.
posted by smoke at 1:55 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


My admittedly limited experience suggests that true has never been top of any journalist's list of priorities - it's on the list, but below interesting and in line with the reader/editor/proprietors' perceived preferences. Watch someone being interviewed, and you can see the journalist is not looking for information so much as a few quick points that will make the angle he/she has already chosen stand up. Read an account of some event you saw first hand, and you'll often find it hard to recognise, but you'll easily spot the stereotype/joke/prejudice the journalist has settled on.

The best chance for the truth lies in competition, but that requires adequate access for a range of different sources and interests. Otherwise the future is Berlusconi.
posted by Phanx at 2:00 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Say what you will; some reporter will read this.

Are we part of the equation now?
posted by Dagobert at 2:04 AM on September 23, 2009


Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?

Loss of objectivity doesn't mean loss of aggressive investigative journalism. Fox is a box of cocks, but I'm sure Fox and the people who write for it would love to destroy Obama, and Fox leadership would happily pay a lot of money for the pleasure and right-wing prestige of doing so. I know Obama is a good guy because he would have a serious case of Fox pox by now if he wasn't.
posted by pracowity at 2:56 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?

Absolutely. They'd be writing for Talking Points Memo rather than The Post, however.

For every story like Woodward and Bernstein, you've got a dozen villagers who are simply boot-lickers who want access for its own sake. Not to mention a few Judith Millers.

Newspapers can't die off fast enough.
posted by bardic at 3:02 AM on September 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm sure Fox would love to destroy Obama, but I think they've spent so much time beating their swords on inanimate objects that I don't think they can anymore. I mean look at how things work: Obama has a pastrami sandwich for lunch. Glen Beck, et al, spin this as THE WORST THING EVER! and liken it to the holocaust, the great proletariat revolution, and that time ants got into your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the fifth grade all rolled into one! Audience continues to be outraged, just like yesterday and the day before.

If tomorrow they had evidence that Obama was a serial killer who was on his 743rd victim, what adjectives would they use? At this point, would their audience react any differently than they did to the story about the pastrami? Do they even have the ability to work out that the two are vaguely different? And is anyone not already in their audience going to buy anything they show us?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:35 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


On Metafilter, my recollection is that the Sotomayor "story" got a pretty credulous reception, as did the more recent ACORN "story". So I think we are just part of the problem.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:38 AM on September 23, 2009


Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?

It wouldn't be Woodward doing it - he would never risk his precious insider-access. Bernstein would probably do it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:40 AM on September 23, 2009


Actually bardic - while I'm sure they would be working for TalkingPointsMemo (and TPM rocks) (or some equivalent that has bias on the right), neither would have the reach to influence to drive change and when (or if) the news would be spread to a mass level, it would be regarded as so much more political noise.

Because in this news-scape, our held biases, which are now catered to on a 24-7 news cycle, are the most important commodities to be traded and sold to.

Mourning the loss of newspapers is okay, but the wheel is turning (its turned already) and that change is afoot is what that change portends is unknown. It's not simply for the better.

There will be pain and sure that pain will be felt in jobs lost (sorry journalists), but more concerning - in a populace that is ever more at odds with each other, with those in power or with power ever less under the microscope of a shared set of instruments.

The Bowden piece is good because it is revealing a pattern occurring right now, time and again, and the results of it are no good for anyone but talking heads and those with something to sell.

BTW, read:

http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/09/22/clay-shirky-and-accountability-journalism/
posted by kmartino at 4:20 AM on September 23, 2009


A ton of stuff you read in the newspaper is, as mutant was saying, copied and pasted from the PR person of one of the principals. I have a schoolmate who plants negative stories about his clients competitors in the media.

My sense is that the golden age of newspapers - when a huge classified ad section could subsidize a bunch more reporters than readers really wanted to pay for and these reporters would go out with a skeptical and curious engagement to the world - was really very short. Certainly post Vietnam. Say 1974 - 1998? And now we are headed back to the old, but more natural, days of openly partisan news sources.

Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?
Didn't they get most of their big breaks spoon fed by deep throat? Who was leaking stuff for his own purpose?
posted by shothotbot at 5:30 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


TV news will go on because governments, corporations, lobbyists and PR companies will continue to find it worth paying for. It has no competition. Blogs do not compete with TV news - Pop Idol competes with TV News. Which explains why TV News has become what it is when it doesn't have a non-profit competitor like the BBC.

Balance vs bias is a red herring. False balance is as big a problem as bias. It's false balance that means Fox News gets treated vaguely seriously by the rest of the mainstream instead of being dismissed as fascistic, lying crackpots. Quality journalism is expensive, and the only question that matters is - who's paying for it? And in the future, the answer is going to be the same as it always has been, but for a brief subscriber heyday - indulgent proprietors of varying ethics (ie Huffington), a sprinkling of charities and trusts and rich vested interests. Being supported by advertising is positively angelic against the PR-funded alternative where advertising is the story is advertising (coming soon to a suspiciously well-resourced blog near you).
posted by WPW at 5:35 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


What gave newspapers their value was the mission and promise of journalism—the hope that someone was getting paid to wade into the daily tide of manure, sort through its deliberate lies and cunning half-truths, and tell a story straight.

The question is, how much of this is remembered reality and how much of it is a combination of memories of "All the President's Men" and half-a-dozen other movies in which the reporter broke his or her story ("telling it straight," of course) and the powerful malefactor got brought to heel? I don't question that there are political shops that aggressively push non-news to "news outlets," nor do I question the degradation of reporting into an increasingly "post-journalistic" world, but what I do question is the assumption that there was some glorious age of Real Journalism that has now been eclipsed.

Bowden writes, "The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist carries an authority that no self-branded liberal or conservative can have." Okay -- sounds noble. But when was there ever a "true journalist"? When were judgments about what should be covered and what not covered ever truly objective? As Ben Bagdikian first wrote in 1983, "Which of the infinite number of events in the environment will be assigned for coverage and which ignored? Which of the infinite observations confronting the reporter will be noted? Which of the facts noted will be included in the story? Which of the reported events will become the first paragraph? Which story will be prominently displayed on page 1 and which buried inside or discarded? None of these is a truly objective decision." Bagdikian also used the example of Sacco and Vanzetti to illustrate that the media's "biases in favor of the status quo do not seem to change materially over time." That's as true now as it was in 1921, "post-journalistic world" or not. Sacco and Vanzetti is just one example.
posted by blucevalo at 5:36 AM on September 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


A first order observation is that Bowden is a fantastic, professional writer which, no doubt, drives him berserk when being stepped on by inarticulate ideologues. It is, in fact, a pleasure to read this kind of work in the middle of browsing the 'net and forgetting how much pleasure you can get from this kind of craftsmanship.

He uses these skills to chose his words very carefully in this piece so as not to come across as sentimental or lamenting too much.

Despite his acceptance of the realities of the new order, at the end of the day, he is grasping at straws in order to remind people of some of the headier aspirations, if not realities, of days gone by.

Having said that, the straw he grabbed at the end of the piece, that inner light that goes on when you've followed a story to some unexpected revelatory truth, is good one to remember.
posted by victors at 5:55 AM on September 23, 2009


The golden age of journalism is a myth.

For every Woodward and Bernstein (and we should always be suspicious of anything involving Woodward) there were loads of planted and suspect stories in the MSM, like about coups in Latin America and Africa. There was also, let's not forget, the New York Times long-running, agenda-led and factually incorrect coverage of the JFK assassination and its aftermath.
posted by grounded at 6:03 AM on September 23, 2009


Has there ever been a time when journalists, newspapers, magazines, news places (tv included) were NOT noted for being shabby, inaccurate, biased, untrustworthy? I think not. So why bother with the news?
posted by Postroad at 6:20 AM on September 23, 2009


Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?

No. Nixon's been dead for, like, 15 years.
posted by snofoam at 6:37 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Nixon's been dead for, like, 15 years.

Oh really????
posted by Phanx at 6:44 AM on September 23, 2009


As is nearly inevitable, one considers the Atlantic as part of the problem itself, with its providing a soapbox for Megan McArdle, top contender for the title of World's Oldest Teenager.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:04 AM on September 23, 2009


Really? Because I thought this was a shattering piece of investigative journalism.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:44 AM on September 23, 2009


I can't help but notice that most journalists are relatively shitty people whom I don't like to be around. They seem to feel they have the right to be obnoxious and self-important, but their quests for "truth" generally strike me as guided by nothing more than ambition. (Paging David Gregory?)

I laugh every time I see a newspaper story about the decline of newspapers. Who gives a shit? Does every one-horse town on this planet need someone reprinting AP stories alongside an occasional dispatch from the society pages and a rundown of who got shot in the neighborhoods you know better than to visit anyway?

No one cares about the decline of journalism except journalists.

Let 'em burn. If we suffer without them like they claim we will, then a demand will exist that a supply rises to fill.
posted by jefficator at 7:52 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


because of course all of these journalists were totally non-biased and never repeated what their sources told them verbatim in the pasta

And unless this has been true of all of them, let's just assume it has never been true of any of them.

Has there ever been a time when journalists, newspapers, magazines, news places (tv included) were NOT noted for being shabby, inaccurate, biased, untrustworthy? I think not. So why bother with the news?

...he says on the internet. Dude, the web is like a non-stop 24-hour clearance sale for shabby, inaccurate, biased untrustworthiness. You might say it is "noted" for this. So what are you doing here? Commenting, no less, in a thread on "the news?"

I'd love to see this logic applied elsewhere. Public transit is noted for running late, and the roads are noted for being crowded, so I never bother with going anywhere.

I assume that everyone complaining about corruption within the media have been writing letters to the papers praising the few ethical reporters on staff, doing what they can to facilitate less mediated distribution and in-depth discussion of political news in their communities, and directly financially supporting reporters or publications who engage in serious journalism, online or in print. Because I know no one would simply just complain on the internet and expect the solution to come to them free of charge without their involvement, as was increasingly demanded (and eventually became a primary weakness) of the old model being decried. Not on the internet. Never.

The news media are not 100% corrupt. Nor could they ever be 100% shining beacon of Socratic objectivity. Nothing is ever 100% anything. Grown-ups accept this as a general truth about the world. Everyone assuming a false belief to the contrary just makes it easier for corruption to tip the balance in its favour.
posted by regicide is good for you at 7:53 AM on September 23, 2009 [8 favorites]


Something to think about is the Mark Bowden's work is not without controversy (at least in regards to potentially compromised reporting).
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:54 AM on September 23, 2009


I work with journalists and my experience has been that they aren't bad people. YMMV. To my mind, economies of scale and network aggregation are the real problems. The rise of massive News networks has destroyed real competition in the media. The best way to prevent the Great Dumbening is strict cross-media ownership rules. 20 papers owned by 20 owners will be much more interesting than 20 papers owned by one company.
posted by awfurby at 7:58 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure when this happened (early 90s maybe?)

In the US, Reagan's killing of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 is often credited with marking the moment of change, but that doesn't explain the UK or other nations. The rise of Murdoch probably should not be underestimated.
posted by rokusan at 8:01 AM on September 23, 2009


I don't know...

I prefer a world where a bunch of earnest, ambitious types are at least portending, if nothing else, to be going after the "truth" then today's propaganda machines that don't even bother to pretend. I think his article makes a valid point in that observation.

The rise of Murdoch was enabled by a confluence of things, including the death of the FD as well as network newsrooms being turned into profit centers at the same moment CNN arrived - all of which coincided with the emergence of the first generation raised entirely on TV, therefore seeing newsprint as quaint, antiquated, a pain and un-sexy.

I'm 50 - I distinctly remember a difference - it may not have been a "golden age" and piss on the past all you want - but it was different.
posted by victors at 8:18 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


It seems that very few of these commenters read the entire article. He doesn't say that there is not investigation going on. What he says is that this investigation is increasingly done as part of a competition to achieve the victory of a particular ideology (rather than, as an alternative, investigation done to present a richer picture of a subject. This is a distinction, metaphorically, between black and white vs. color). While there have been degrees of this in the past, can anyone honestly make the argument that our public discourse hasn't been overtaken by this competitive end goal?

Several of these comments are actually indicative of how accustomed we are to this kind of "reportage" (I chose two, which you can argue, is an example of the same kind of bias he is lamenting...):

because of course all of these journalists were totally non-biased and never repeated what their sources told them verbatim in the past! Especially not on fox news. Just look at the 2000 election, or the run up to the Iraq war! Truly example of impartial, accurate reporting that informed and enriched the American public.

He's not saying that those people are examples of great reportage. Your comment actually supports his point.

Loss of objectivity doesn't mean loss of aggressive investigative journalism. Fox is a box of cocks, but I'm sure Fox and the people who write for it would love to destroy Obama, and Fox leadership would happily pay a lot of money for the pleasure and right-wing prestige of doing so. I know Obama is a good guy because he would have a serious case of Fox pox by now if he wasn't.

This also supports his point, as he profiles the investigations of one person in the service of character assassination.

It is true, if you get into the nitty-gritty of reportage talk, that there are always questions of authorship bias. This is the same struggle that anthropologists discuss when they talk about writing ethnographies. The point is not that there was some golden age of NO BIAS. In fact he admits in the end that the reporter is writing from an "I", a particular point of view. His point is that we no longer expect this "I" to even attempt a perspective (which, by degrees, CAN BE achieved) away from an ideological platform.

Using an extended hypothetical example: We no longer expect the reporter to stand in the crowd of an execution and tell us the victim's story and the executioner's story. We expect he or she to pick a side and ride it into the ground, assuming that the other reporter over there will tell the opposite side. While this means that both sides are out there, and can be compared by those who bother to look, it also means that we have lost that comparison struggle on the page, of a person who has looked at both sides and tried to tell a complete story, one that shows biases of a personal nature, yes, but is little interested in either the victim or executioner's victory. This struggle with perspectives is at the heart of any intellectual discourse. It is a testament to our saturation in the alternative that we hardly believe that anyone in journalism (or otherwise) has ever attempted this kind reportage.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:25 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Mutant: While it is of course depressing to learn of reporters losing their jobs, I haven't seen much coverage on the other carnage going on in the newspaper industry - the elimination of editors from the news gathering & publishing chain.

I think though that the decline in the newspaper industry goes back at least 40 years. When I attended journalism classes in '89, the job market in print dailies was declining due to aggressive market consolidation and pressure from new distribution models such as USA Today.

But honestly I think the big blow to journalism is when the pressure to provide 24 hours of constant entertainment became a bigger deal than getting the story right. I remember the Kennedy plane crash, and spending hours of a family visit listening to a newscaster intone solemnly that there were no new developments between interviews of people distantly related to Kennedy politics.

bardic: Absolutely. They'd be writing for Talking Points Memo rather than The Post, however.

I'm unconvinced that TPM really shines as an alternative given that they use the exact same model as every other newspaper out there, get >90% of their content from other sources, and throw in some original content to hit their target market.

The central problem with holding blogging as the alternative media source is that so far, most of what bloggers are doing involves filtering through a declining number of traditional journalism sources.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:25 AM on September 23, 2009


Absolutely. They'd be writing for Talking Points Memo rather than The Post, however.

Have you read TPM lately? The main page now reads like a he she said blog desperate for minute by minute coverage like a 24/7 new channel.

I used to love that site when they broke news but now it is just another political facebook posting youtube videos of talking heads on news channels.
posted by srboisvert at 8:27 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is a huge middle ground between claiming an impossible objectivity and flushing the whole enterprise down the toilet in favor of the professional pundits and character assassins. That middle ground--which was quite common once upon a time in professional journalism--involved continually questioning your own bias, seeking out alternative points of view, and giving them a voice even if you found them repugnant.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:40 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Mark Bowden discovers that PR firms with agendas use lazy journalists to punk America.

Film at 11.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:59 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


I used to love that site when they broke news but now it is just another political facebook posting youtube videos of talking heads on news channels.

Breaking news costs money and TPM may well be less inclined to do it now that the party they favor is in power. Instead they will tend to run counter-strikes.

The rise of massive News networks has destroyed real competition in the media. The best way to prevent the Great Dumbening is strict cross-media ownership rules. 20 papers owned by 20 owners will be much more interesting than 20 papers owned by one company.

Cross ownership issues were real and pertinent 15 years ago. The are near-irrelevant now, becuase what's killing the papers is the internet. There is but one market, and if your site bores or annoys me or isn't to my political/cultural taste, there are millions of others, equally and immediately accessible. There will be a space for small, hyper-local coverage which will may possibly bring back the 20 owners for 20 papers model you favor. (Depends how well local blogs are able to cover this territory.) But the breaking here has been more fundamental: The old media had a near-monopoly on advertizing space, and the better able they were to attract eyeballs, the more attractive they were to advertizers. Those facts alinged their interests of newspaper owners with the "public good." Break that --- as the internet has, by devaluing advertizing and fracturing the audience, so that I am far more likely to read a single article from a dozen different sources than a single source cover to cover --- and there is no money for public interest journalism.* You need monopoly power and pricing. That's gone.
posted by Diablevert at 9:07 AM on September 23, 2009


Could Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of Nixon possibly happen today?

Probably not. Because the crisis-management lessons learned by Watergate taught communicators to get out in front of the story and stay on message.

Every major dust-up since has been managed, massaged and spun within an inch of its life. Some more successfully than others, true. But the odds of a Watergate happening again are slim-to-none, and slim just left town.

Moreover, Watergate relied in large part on Deep Throat -- Mark Felt feeding anonymous information to Wood-stein. Nothing major happens without Felt feeding or confirming the information.

Today, an "anonymous source" as highly placed as Mark Felt, and as willing to blow the whistle, would just resign, get a book deal and retire to a nice golf course in Florida.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:09 AM on September 23, 2009


I still enjoy the NY Times, despite the fact that I became aware of all the "news" 24 to 48 hours earlier on the internet. I really appreciate a well crafted sentence, not literature mind you, just, "wow, that's pretty good for someone typing fast on deadline with only wire service copy to work from."

Now it seems that human interest stories, tales of local quirky oddballs, and restaurant reviews are the future of journalism.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:16 AM on September 23, 2009


Now it seems that human interest stories, tales of local quirky oddballs, and restaurant reviews are the future of journalism.

Dude: the Puppy Diaries. It's appalling.
posted by Marnie at 9:40 AM on September 23, 2009


I can't favorite delmoi's comment enought. Journalists were dropping the ball long before layoffs. They loved to not think critically about Enron and the like, because it was more fun being friends with people like Ken Lay and companies like Enron than being the bad guy who thinks critically and carefully.
posted by anniecat at 10:01 AM on September 23, 2009


Didn't Walter Lippmann cover a lot of this ground in 1922?
posted by Monsters at 10:28 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


While there have been degrees of this in the past, can anyone honestly make the argument that our public discourse hasn't been overtaken by this competitive end goal?

While there have been degrees of what?

I don't think anyone is -- honestly, seriously, or otherwise -- making this hypothetical argument that you are ridiculing. Why is it necessary to produce an argument to demolish if the argument isn't even being made?

It is true, if you get into the nitty-gritty of reportage talk, that there are always questions of authorship bias.

I don't believe that what occurred in past golden eras of so-called objective investigative journalism were merely instances of authorship bias. The mass media has almost always acted to buttress or reinforce the status quo, in some eras more blatantly and with more obviousness than others, in some eras with more subtlety and with greater lip service paid to the notion that reporters were engaging in dispassionate and rational observations of human behavior and political machinations. The real difference now is that they feel free to go their merry way about doing this without any pretense of adhering to some mythical creed of journalistic purity.
posted by blucevalo at 10:34 AM on September 23, 2009


Just for shits and giggles, John Stossel:

When I announced last week that I was leaving ABC for Fox, some readers complained about my "bias." I replied: "Every reporter has political beliefs. The difference is that I am upfront about mine."

Look at today's burning issue: President Obama's pledge to redesign 15 percent of the economy. Virtually every reporter calls his health care plan "reform." But dictionaries define reform as "improvement." So before they present any evidence, reporters pronounce Obama's plan an improvement. Isn't that bias?

posted by Joe Beese at 10:56 AM on September 23, 2009


jefficator: I can't help but notice that most journalists are relatively shitty people whom I don't like to be around.

Too true. I wake up every morning and, after a few moments reflecting on my own shittiness ask myself if it's any wonder jefficator doesn't like to be around me.
posted by rhymer at 11:00 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Virtually every reporter calls his health care plan "reform." But dictionaries define reform as "improvement." So before they present any evidence, reporters pronounce Obama's plan an improvement. Isn't that bias?

John Stossel, there's nothing about you that I can't reform with my hands.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:13 AM on September 23, 2009


blucevalo: And the other side of the coin, I don't think anyone is making the hypothetical argument that you are ridiculing either.

Journalistic purity may be a quixotic goal and one that was rarely achieved in the past. The solution strikes me as similar to what we do with the same problem in the sciences: to demand higher levels of rigor, better sources of evidence, increased reluctance to accept unsupported or unsourced claims, a willingness to present multiple sources and reasonable doubt, and open peer review to spot and identify the bozos.

Otherwise, we might as well just back the most entertaining spectacle.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:19 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


While there have been degrees of what?

: degrees of investigation done as part of a competition to achieve the victory of a particular ideology.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 11:31 AM on September 23, 2009


My childhood hometown newspaper said up-front right under its motto that accuracy was a humanly impossible goal, but they would give it their best shot.

And if the pretense of striving for accuracy means that stories are built from multiple on-the-record sources from multiple perspectives, making them potentially more accurate than a press release trying to sell a product, party, or person, is that a bad thing?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:40 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just for shits and giggles, John Stossel:

I'm missing the giggles.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:51 AM on September 23, 2009


The solution strikes me as similar to what we do with the same problem in the sciences: to demand higher levels of rigor, better sources of evidence, increased reluctance to accept unsupported or unsourced claims, a willingness to present multiple sources and reasonable doubt, and open peer review to spot and identify the bozos.

Otherwise, we might as well just back the most entertaining spectacle.


I don't disagree with you. But who's the "we" in "what we do with the same problem in the sciences"? And who's going to fund the rigorous inquiry and the meticulous sourcing when it's clear that media corporations get more profit from perpetuating the three-ring circus than from doing the things you're talking about?
posted by blucevalo at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2009


blucevalo: Well, as previously noted, it's not as if the media corporations can realistically hold a monopoly in a web-based market. I think ultimately we need to vote with our subscription dollars and viewing habits. But what I'm hearing here is that the entire agenda of demanding standards of journalistic practice is a futile one.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:15 PM on September 23, 2009


It is indeed futile if what draws eyeballs and dollars is the phenomenon that Bowden describes. And so far, there's no evidence that people are tiring of any of it. If anything, the ratings of people like Glenn Beck are skyrocketing.
posted by blucevalo at 2:06 PM on September 23, 2009


I've always enjoyed Bowden's work, but not enough to renew my Atlantic subscription when it runs out.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 3:57 PM on September 23, 2009


ShotHotBot's got it (though I'd probably set the dates differently).

The age of "objective" journalism was a very brief anomaly in the history of journalism. Even then, it was never as objective as it pretended to be and it was mainly an American phenomenon anyways.
posted by Jahaza at 5:48 PM on September 23, 2009


If tomorrow they had evidence that Obama was a serial killer who was on his 743rd victim, what adjectives would they use?

Oh, you know, the heavy stuff; 'sobering', 'grave', 'disturbing'. The only way to seem Truly Serious now is to suggest that you are too overcome with emotion to employ a thesaurus and must reach for some old-fashioned words rather than anything zippy and contemporary.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:58 PM on September 23, 2009


Seriously, Don't journalists every get tired of idolizing themselves in their own medium?

Seriously, doesn't Delmoi ever get tired of bashing journalists on Metafilter?
posted by ambient2 at 11:45 PM on September 23, 2009


Seriously, doesn't Delmoi ever get tired of bashing journalists on Metafilter?

Perl scripts don't get tired.
posted by srboisvert at 1:39 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I announced last week that I was leaving ABC for Fox, some readers complained about my "bias." I replied: "Every reporter has political beliefs. The difference is that I am upfront about mine."

At least now no one will mistake him for a journalist.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:29 AM on September 25, 2009


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