The Mainstream Media: A Defense

Jeff Alworth

The Oregonian and, to a lesser extent, the Willamette Week and Portland Tribune take a fair amount of heat on Blue Oregon.  As card-carrying members of the digital guerrilla media, it's our job to keep an eye on our wood-based brethren.  (Which is itself a time-honored tradition in media: the Merc goes after the WW; the WW goes after the O; everyone goes after the Trib.)  But an article in this week's New Yorker reminds me how much we all depend on the mainstream media and why we all have a stake in its survival.

The article is a profile of Hugh Hewitt, a conservative who has a vision to transform the mainstream media into wholly partisan media (sorry no link):

"Lately, [conservatives] have been not only complaining more full-throatedly but also devising, with more energy than before, their own version of what jounalism ought to look like: faster, more opinionated, more multimedia, and less hung up on distancing itself from the practice of politics than the daily-newspaper and network-news versions."

Hewitt, who is a blogger, radio host, writer, and lawyer, has constructed this critique on a classically postmodern foundation: since we cannot be objective, the enterprise of journalism is built on a fiction.  It is therefore more transparent to surrender to  our partisan beliefs and use journalism to forward them.  Any hope of remaining objective, Hewitt says, is "vanity."

Hewitt's diagnosis is right, but his prescription is disastrous.  The postmodern critique, as a reaction against the pure-science approach of mid-century modernism, was an important one: it forced even hard scientists to recognize subjectivity as an undeniable element of all understanding.  So when Hewitt describes journalism as a subjective enterprise, he's accurate.  The reason the blogosphere has become so relevant so quickly is exactly because it serves as an antidote to mainstream media's (MSM) false sense of objectivity.  It's a useful corrective.

But this is where Hewitt goes wrong, throwing baby and bathwater out the door.  Underlying his assumption that the MSM is subjective is a parallel assumption: that it's liberal and its ends are to advance a liberal agenda:

"It's a seamless web.  It has always been a seamless web.  The Washington Post is an activism tool for liberals.  The New York Times is an activism tool for 'way liberals.  Polling is an activism tool.  Every time the Post or the Times runs a poll, they are attempting to influence legislation.  They are engaged in activism."

Hewitt is, of course, dead wrong.  For many long decades, the intention of journalism has been to reveal the truth, not advance a political agenda.  We know, thanks to the postmodern critique, that "truth" is a concept tinged with subjectivity.  But we also know this applies to astrophysics, not just journalism.  We don't abandon the discipline just because we've discovered that there's subjectivity to the method.  Journalism may sometimes fail to acheive pure objectivity, but let's not confuse the result with the intent.  The intent to tell the truth is absolutely critical.

Hewitt's intention has nothing to do with truth: he explicitly wants to advance conservative politics.  He wants not to inform, but indoctrinate.  To the problem of a press not sufficiently objective, Hewitt offers perfect subjectivity.  We've seen this far too often from our leaders in the past five years--shifting rationales, corrupted data, misleading reports.  According to this logic, since any report, rationale, or dataset may be inaccurate, how can we criticize our leaders for being wrong?  (And certainly, we've heard a lot of this kind of apologia in recent months from righties.)  So it is with the press--why worry about the "truth?"  Let's just write about what we already believe--that's so much more transparent.

I will no doubt continue to carp about the Oregonian and Willamette Week on Blue Oregon.  But I see not the slightest evidence that any of our local press are engaged in anything but true journalism.  They may not always achieve truth, but they're shooting for it.  We can't live in a free society without that touchstone, and I certainly respect and appreciate their efforts.

So to, apparently, does Hewitt.  As a strange coda to this article, Hewitt has spent the past week talking on his blog about why he agreed to do the article for a crazy liberal rag like the New Yorker Hewitt's response

"I have been asked by many why did I "chance" such a piece? Answer: Before I agreed I read everything Nicholas Lemann had produced for the magazine over the previous four years, and found all of them to be rigourously fair and of course spectacularly well written."

His appraisals of the piece are congratulatory.  He admires how well author Nicholas Lemann presented his side of the story.  He essentially calls it a "fair" piece.  In essence, it captures the truth of the matter.  Does Hewitt imagine that such an article would be possible in the mediascape he envisions?

  • theanalyst (unverified)

    The original right-wing assertion was that the mainstream media (MSM) were not objective but "biased." This was the basis for the argument that the MSM needed to include more conservative voices so as to achieve "balance." And the MSM responded. But it was never enough, and so the complaint against MSM continued. The right-wing always found bias, even when they had to pull out the microscopes and micrometers.

    As the right-wing media grew to dominate virtually all aspects of public discourse, the argument that the MSM were biased became laughable. The right had created a media empire whose entire reason for existence was to enforce a biased viewpoint, often acting in concert with the Republican party.

    Finally the right wing could not longer complain about "lack of objectivity" in the MSM, because to do so would be to undermine their own media dominance. So the argument has now shifted to a critique of the whole idea of objectivity. A corolary to that is the idea that journalism is not a "profession," but is something that anyone can do. In other words, for many in the right a journalist is now anyone who calls him- or herself a journalist. There is no distinction between a commentator, a political operative, and a journalist. A traditional "journalist" is now, according to some on the right, a graduate of an "elitist" program designed to impose a left-wing bias on reporting.

    For example

    "This very long book is the latest sally in the war of a certain segment of the journalistic elite against the Nixon administration."

    "Instead, most of the journalistic elite offer reflexively liberal answers to practically every question a pollster can imagine."

    " . . .conservatives of any stripe are still regarded by the journalistic elite as party-crashers at best . . ."

    In other words, if you're going to do away with the concept of journalistic objectivity, then whole concept of journalism as a professional activity has to be discredited as well.

    So in only a short while we've gone from a situation in which the right complained about a lack of objectivity, to a situation in which they claim objectivity doesn't exist. A good trick, if they can pull it off.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    As a former card-carrying member of the Washington press elite (as it were), I beg to differ.

    Yes, we all depend on MSM to a certain extent, but when President Bush holds a private BBQ at his Texas Mansion for the White House press corps and many were seen rolling over for the President so he could rub their tummies... well... Lapdog Media is at it again!

    Here's the link to our White House press corps putting poor, dumb W on a pedestal, instead of burying him in the dust bin of history. So so sad.

    Here's the story:

  • Mike (unverified)

    Jeff raises an interesting point at the end of his post, but then doesn't follow-through on it. Hewitt's entire thesis seems to be that there is no such things as "fair and balanced", which is why we should embrace the opinion media (e.g. Fox news). But then he himself calls Nicholas Lemann not just fair but "rigourously fair".

    I wonder: What is "rigorous fairness" under his theory that fairness and objectivity don't exist?

    The only way his thesis can be reconciled with his statement that Lemann is a fair reporter is to assume that he believes perfect objectivity can't exist, but reporters can come approximate objectivity by striving to be fair. This sounds to me like a pretty good basis for defending the mainstream media.

  • Walter (unverified)

    Hugh Hewitt is a pretty mild talk show host and certainly way more unbiased when compared to Air America. He is also Gigabytes smarter than anyone they've fielded so far.

    It has to be hard for the Left to witness Liberal icons like Danny Rather blow up on screen with his demented news casts. Talking about falling on your own bomb, he held to his Left Wing beliefs to the end. But, research time and again has proven the Left slant of the media. All you have to do as far as current events is watch the twisted coverage of Crawford to understand why any sane person would wonder why the ugly side of Sheehan has been hidden from them. I know, I know, you're saying, what ugly side!

    I'm sure you're all looking forward to 2006 to finally realize your dreams of a resurrection of the Left. Sorry, it isn't going to happen because there are way too many info blogs out there slowly informing Americans of what is what. All the information on Europe and why not to fall into that socialist trap are surfacing. Also, Canada's Left Wing crooked government is being exposed. Something the Left has begged America to follow but it isn't going to happen in 2006 or in the future. You've wrapped yourself around such losers as fat boy and his that normal people just can't take you seriously.

    Hey, give this a read for a wake up call and it is sritten by a very powerful Frenchman.... read and weep....

  • Tenkwatawa (unverified)

    Trolls are trolls because they are stupid: All you have to do as far as current events is watch the twisted coverage ... to understand why any sane person would wonder why the ugly side ... has been hidden from them. I know, I know, you're saying, what ugly side! [Not even excision can help that sentence.]

    Look, Jeff, I don't join your defense of MSM. You know, that "don't know what you got 'til it's gone" cuts two ways -- it's not always a loss, sometimes it's a gain. We might not know how tight we're bound until we cast off the 'mainstream' mantle. Smash the MSM, and then see what we got to work with to fashion the replacement, which is inevitable.

    I don't know. I have more to add than time to type it. (I can hear the exhales of relief everywhere ....)

    So, in short, against my credo to avoid generalizing from one example, here's my generalization from one example. Take Sunday's T.O. editorial, ghastly please. In it they say 'stay the course and let's talk about what the course is.' Here, your post, you say you believe (and trust) 'they' do "true journalism," (or something like that).

    Okay, here is a flaming example of actual factual NEWS that, not only have you never heard about, BUT WORSE, the REAL Reporter/Journalist/Editor CLASS at the Newspaper NEVER HEARD ABOUT IT EITHER, TO BE ABLE TO KEEP IT FROM YOU. Or are you saying 'they' DID KNOW about it, and DIDN'T SHARE it, because they didn't think it was relevant information for today's reader, and/or didn't think it had any bearing on their certainty the problem is 'ideologues entrenched who cannot talk about Iraq,' and/or didn't think an investigative assignment could second-source such a scurrilous allegation?

    I mean, the MSM censors your news, and worse: their own. -- What part of that is defensible?

    From Capitol Hill Blue -- Bush Leagues

    Bush's Obscene Tirades Rattle White House Aides By DOUG THOMPSON Aug 25, 2005, 06:19

    While President George W. Bush travels around the country in a last-ditch effort to sell his Iraq war, White House aides scramble frantically behind the scenes to hide the dark mood of an increasingly angry leader who unleashes obscenity-filled outbursts at anyone who dares disagree with him.

    "I'm not meeting again with that goddamned bitch," Bush screamed at aides who suggested he meet again with Cindy Sheehan, the war-protesting mother whose son died in Iraq. "She can go to hell as far as I'm concerned!"

    Bush, administration aides confide, frequently explodes into tirades over those who protest the war, calling them .... #

  • Walter (unverified)

    I don't know. I have more to add than time to type it. (I can hear the exhales of relief everywhere ....)

    I think you should have taken your own advice. As confusing as your statements are I suppose this Left Winger is suppose to telling us something?

    I thought when Rather blew himself up over this most would have figured something out. As I said, you can't be taken seriously when you plug a ranter.... Oh, I see big Al Sharpton is showing up in Crawford. That certainly adds credibility............

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    The Bushies, especially W, are known for their explosive tempers, whch is what happens when spoiled rich white men do not get their way.

    But, as much as I like capitolhillblue, I find it hard to believe any POTUS (other than Nixon) would use such language about Ms. Sheehan, even when Bush has done nothing right in five long years.

    And, when my hard-core PUB brothers start bailing, the canary (or is it chicken?) is on life support.

    What's the latest numbers? 2/3 of America think he's some kinda sh!t magnet, or something?

    Positively Nixonian, with the same exact cast and crew.

  • (Show?)

    Walter, that you imagine Dan Rather is a "Liberal icon" [sic] is evidence that we shouldn't take your opinion too seriously. Time for you to crawl back into the echo chamber...

  • Walter (unverified)

    Walter, that you imagine Dan Rather is a "Liberal icon" [sic] is evidence that we shouldn't take your opinion too seriously. Time for you to crawl back into the echo chamber...

    Jeffy, Here I've been waiting all evening just for you to add something important to the postings. Now I'm so disappointed. All you had was a flat zero and dropping into the negatives. And we know Jeffy, you think Danny is a Conservative LOL....

    Well Jeffy, maybe next time partner....

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    Sid, what you said: "...explosive tempers" -- we manage it or imprison it, and this is not any garden-variety "explosive" or "temper." Get a category for your clues -- Sociopaths. Mental illness. Something. Recognize that mentally handicapped people exist, from whatever cause, and there might be two or more of them in the Fright House as a very real possibility.

    You: "...find it hard to believe." Whatever, mentally ill people still exist. Check your 'believer box,' or maybe open it and look around in there more often. Please don't be the tv news footage of the neighbor-on-the-porch next door to Hitler, saying "It's just so hard to believe. He was outspoken in his opinions, sure, but he got along with the kids riding their bikes on the sidewalk ... who could ever imagine he would do something so horrible. Right. Next. Door."

    I expected you had more conviction of a cynic with a press-familiar contempt. Unexpected that you have any doubt the president is brain damaged. Bottom line question, apart from your subjective sense: Is it an objective news item, would you run it?

    Does it belong in The O., either as is, or with more corroboration with attribution?

    But back to my basic consideration, and for Jeff: Can Mainstream Media decide not to decide what's real and what's not? Where is any integrity you find defensible in shilling for a fraud, and media proclaiming blind trust in blind knowledge?

    A person may keep themself uninformed intentionally, but a newspaper can not, (such as the ones you named). Can it? How can you defend, or excuse, moral meanness municipal-size?

  • (Show?)

    Can Mainstream Media decide not to decide what's real and what's not? Where is any integrity you find defensible in shilling for a fraud, and media proclaiming blind trust in blind knowledge?

    This is the liberal critique and I don't mean to dismiss it. But again, it's useful to distinguish between the intention and the result. Liberals say that newspapers "shill" for the administration. There's abundant evidence that they've abandoned their post as watchdogs of power--I wrote a post about it last week, in fact. But does that mean shilling was their intention--our the result of misplaced trust that this President wouldn't lie?

    Dig a little deeper, and the issue becomes murkier still. The reason we know Bush lied about the war (among many, many other things) is why? Because the press reported it. The Post was all over that aluminum tubes story, as it was breaking (we owe a thanks to Dana Millbank for that one). So the criticism isn't that the press didn't report it, but that they didn't believe their own reporting on the editorial pages (the Post famously backed the war).

    This may represent the split between ownership and journalists. The "liberal media" argument, whatever kernal of truth it's founded on, certainly doesn't extend to ownership--a fact even the Hannitys admit.

    Liberals want the press to run critical stories more often, to pursue them more doggedly, and to put these critical stories in prominent places (rather than burying them on page A22). Those are all reasonable and supportable arguments. But does it follow that because they've done a poor job so far, they are intentionally acting as "shills" for Bush? I don't see how anyone can seriously make that claim. Too much good reportage has happened over the past five years to support it.

  • Walter (unverified)

    The Bushies, especially W, are known for their explosive tempers, whch is what happens when spoiled rich white men do not get their way. Hummm, that makes Kerry the ultimate spoiled mad man that you wanted to put in the White House.

    Jeffy, Thanks for saying something to Tawana or we would have had to suffer through another dreary post.

    I must say, if flimflam was an airplane most of you would be 747s. I really don't mind because I enjoy reading Left Wingers critique Left Wingers. When you talk about the media stuff it is just hilarious. Then when one of you claims you are more Left Than someone else because your tears are bigger it is so humorous it could be a sitcom. I know, I know, they aren't terrorist, they are freedom fighters. How can you not laugh at that?

    Hey, here is something for you to munch on. This could have been Sheehan because there are a ton of similarities....

    Part of the above:

    As her father's time increases in Iraq, so does Kodee's anger at George W. Bush. She is attempting to raise enough money bring her father home herself -- her most recent money-making plot is to get a job as an officer in the army -- but she is also attempting to petition the U.S. government. Kodee has been inquiring about whether Uncle Sam has a wife so she could plead to "Aunt Sam" to bring her father home. Kodee knows her father is sick of Iraq, and that he has recently seen two of his friends die.

    To her, Bush's reasons for the War in Iraq are not good enough for him to take her father away, and she is not afraid to express her disdain for current U.S. policy. It has nothing to do with politics. She wants her father, who is her only living blood relative, back in her life.


    I see more of the Left is getting pretty excited about the poll numbers again and that is good. I know those polls in 2004 sure helped you out up until the actual election results were posted. Wasn't that Ohio thing just a killer and then to have that nonpartisan report come out about how the Democrats were strong arming people. What a hoot.

    Any of you talked to Ward Churchill lately. How is it going from the old Indian these days?

  • Jeff Bull (unverified)

    Setting aside Walter's rants against liberal delusion (it does exist, just nowhere near to the extent he believes it does) and Tenkwatawa's occasional slips into conspiratorial delusion, there's the kernel of a good discussion here. Thanks, Senor Alworth, for posting this one.

    The biggest thing that Hewitt misses is what Mike gets at in his comment. "Objectivity" is an imperfect term: the MSM should evolve toward "fairness." The MSM serves the unique purpose of trying to capture the both conventional wisdom and to explain to readers when that doesn't add up. In almost every way, this is a process of discovery, which means, in turn, that conventional wisdom isn't static. But the most important thing is a good faith effort to present the most accurate reflection of reality by clocking most relevant sides of a given debate. That doesn't mean, however, that all ideas are equal and must be treated as such; there's nothing wrong with reaching conclusions and that's blogs' advantage over the MSM. But the most important thing is revealing who the author is and, space permitting, explaining how they reached those conclusions; fairness only dictates that they address what they dismissed and why they dismissed it.

    Reading Tenkwatawa's arguments gets at why blogs tradition of unvetted, unvarnished reportage acts as their Achilles heel. Once you go too far down the road to cries against "self-censorship," you start reporting about FBI agents catching Bill and Monica in the act. The media's cautious for good reason: you're supposed to be able to trust what you read there. It sucks when you can't, but that hardly means you jettison the caution; in fact, it argues for reinforcing the caution.

    But the larger problem is that the MSM's theoretical mission - to be a semi-sober anchor for informing the public - conflicts with the real-world demands placed on it by corporate media. But that's another discussion for another day.

    Oh, and on the conservative Dan Rather obsession? That's just funny. Really. Conservative delusion aside, I've never met a liberal who loved Rather....or Ward Churchill for that matter. One's a media hack, the other an academic whore.

  • Walter (unverified)

    Jeffery, You being from Ohio there is hope your roots will save you eventually.

    Left Wingers don't love Dan Rather or Ward Churchill. Left Wingers don't love anyone but themselves but they do tie in with others of their ilk by fabrication to reach a goal. It is just like John Kerry. Do you think he loves anyone other then Big John? Absolutely not but he will tie in with other similar creatures to reach his status as a living God.

    It is pretty easy to spot these people because they are never wrong. In the case of Big John, he didn't fall on his face, his secret service agent tripped him. Danny Rather didn't knowingly tell a lie, he was duped by other less perfect Left Wingers. But, in the end he was still hanging on by his fingernails saying, even if the memos were fake the story was correct. He also was so illiterate about modern equipment he still believed the documents were real using a faxed copy. God help such people.

    Now about Hewitt. If you've listened to his show he is not objective. No one is because it is impossible but he is much closer to the mark than any of the Left Wingers running around yelling about whatever injustices have been done to them. It is the same with the written media, they aren't objective and if anyone expects them to be it is never going to happen because reporters and journalists are human. Some more human than others but I think where it all goes wrong is so many of the Left Wingers have been caught in fabrications like the USA today and New York Time folks to mention a few. Yet they want us to believe they should have absolute power over their sources as if the scales of justice is built into them. Some yahoo wants to be looked at as being on the same level for evaluating truth as a Supreme Court Justice. I don't think so and they've abused it to the point their argument doesn't fly anymore. But I think the public has the right to expect them to at least attempt nonpartisan reporting which they fail at miserably.

    Hewitt somehow can stomach having a squeaky voiced Left Wing attorney on his show spouting off nonsense. That alone puts him way above the norm. Plus, he debates somewhat fairly about what is the flaw of the day in the Left's bank vault of sins. When comparing him to Al Franken it is about like comparing God with Bill Clinton on a truth meter. No contest.

    On blogs. One of the neat things about blogs like Powerline is their using links to verify their statements. The NYT's and Washington Post babble on with some outrageous story with nothing but hidden sources. And you can go through their papers and look for words like Right Wing which is laced all over the place. Now, go through their papers and look for Left Wing. Plus they've glossed over the mess in Europe and lead us to believe we should follow their lead. Europe is heading for the trash bin of history if they don't get their act together but I personally think it is too late. The original European's birthrate is so low they can no longer replace their cultural heritage. Who needs their advice when they can't even field an army and corruption is running rampant in places like France.

    And our Left Wing media still avoids what is going on in the U.N. at every opportunity and how dangerous that organization has become and the threat it poses to our nation. God, the mention of Clinton sitting on top of that monster is terrifying but the NYT's and Washington Post would love it. Stupid, stupid people. So, as you can see I'm right as usual in a Conservative way because you know this is only the tip of the iceberg....

  • Walter (unverified)

    Here is some good reading on California wanting to import to our other Universities porno racial equality. This is just cutest thing.

    Professor Adams, UNC-Asheville....

    This is so Left even former Mayor Willie Brown choked on it.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    CBS newsman Dan Rather had the courage to do something President Bush, Dick Cheney and Paul (Seen My Comb?) Wolfowitz have never done -- RISK HIS WHITE LIFE.

    W is a coward, true blue, with poll numbers to match -- NIXONIAN bottom-of-the-barrel numbers, baby!

  • Walter (unverified)

    Sidney, Sidney, calm down. You've got yourself going into orbit over a loser. And Jeffery just said you Left Wingers don't love Danny I'd Rather Not Rather..... This doesn't click into the scheme of things Sidney... Now take a chill pill and put an ice pack on your Left Wing head.

    And, what the heck are you doing getting up this early in the morning?

  • Walter (unverified)

    Sidney, I'm really sorry about this and that I've upset you. Here are some poll numbers from 2004 and today. Now I would suggest, and this is only a suggestion, that you go look up Jimmy Carter's poll numbers. Make sure you have some aspirins handy because you'll need them.

    Rasmussen Daily Presidential Polls % 2004 October 25, 2004 Date Bush Kerry Oct 25 46.4% 48.4%

    Rasmussen today, August 30, 2005 Bush Job Approval Approve Disapprove Today 48% 51%

    Keep in mind that it is only 2005 and 2008 is a ways off. But don't give up, Hillary is in the wings and it is going to be fun, fun, fun.

    One more thing because I'm not familiar with Left Wing terms. Is baby! like, honey baby, a term of endearment? If so, thank you.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Debating whether the "mainstream" media are liberal or conservative misses the significant truth. They are liberal or conservative according to one's views. Certainly fox is conservative and Air America is liberal compared to most other outlets.

    What is significant is easily seen if one looks at reporting and opinion over time from a large number of sources. For instance:

    The media take for granted the values of corporate based economics. This is most likely because they themselves are big business, and their revenue comes, for the most part, from big business.

    The media take for granted that US foreign policy is based in expertise and good intentions. It takes a real fiasco for them to begin questioning the administration.

    The media reflect the values of upper middle class professionals, as that describes their managers. So, we hear reporting that tends to be socially liberal and economically conservative, more or less.

    The media report what people will pay consume, whether that is the important truth or trivial fantasy.

    The media reflect the biases inherent in the "objective" approach. They rely on the views of "experts", who tend to reflect the values of elites. They report on "both sides", [if we are lucky] even though there are often many more than two sides.

    Laziness, lack of resources, and the desire to preserve access all tend to reduce the quality of reporting.

  • Kim (unverified)

    the Portland Oregonian got caught by Powerlineblog.

    Bad as the Star Tribune is, the Portland Oregonian is even worse. Like the Star Tribune, it ran Krugman's kolumn on August 22. On Sunday, according to reader Jeff Kempe, the Oregonian ran Krugman’s Friday kolumn, but without the "corrections" Krugman was forced to make. Kempe has written the Oregonian

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