Sunday, June 28, 2009

David vs. Goliath: The Media Wars

The recent CNN televised cat fight between Dana Milbank and Nico Pitney (video posted here) is an excellent example of the struggle in progress between the traditional, mainstream media and the emergence of alternate information sources, like bloggers, news/opinion sites like The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and countless others.

In his book, "Taking on the System", Daily Kos chieftain Markos Moulitsas Zuniga explained, in depth, the concept of "gatekeepers", those who for decades have controlled the flow of information to the general public, accumulating an enormous amount of power in the process.

In the last ten years or so, the Internet has allowed hundreds and thousands of new voices to be heard, effectively circumventing the gatekeepers. Have all of these newcomers graduated with journalism degrees? No. Do they dangle their participles and shift tenses from paragraph to paragraph? They do. Does anyone (outside of journalism professors and graduates) really care? Not really.

And not everything written by the blogging crowd has been accurate or adequately researched, either. Some in the mainstream media point to this as the reason why it's important for the old-school news organizations to survive and thrive. They have an elaborate framework of researchers, editors, fact-checkers, and others that places rigor in the news presentation process.

But does that provide a better, or more accurate, news product? Not always, as evidenced by the media's complete flop in how they covered the run up to, and the execution of, the 2nd war in Iraq, the follies of the George W. Bush administration, and other well known and highly publicized missed opportunities. The prosecution points to William Kristol as Exhibit A. The prosecution rests.

In my mind, there exists this uncomfortable, almost incestuous relationship between the mainstream press and the targets of their coverage. Whether it's the White House correspondents dinner, the Radio and Television correspondents event, or countless other examples, many have questioned just how close the reporters have gotten to those they cover, and whether there's an underlying problem with journalists pulling punches in order to maintain privileged access to key policy and decision makers.

Now, more than ever, there's a need for  independent fact-gathering and reporting. Challenging those in power is never easy, and not always successful, but some of the best-in-kind news reporting has come out of, if not adversarial, then well-respected reporter-reportee relationships. When was the last time anyone sitting in that White House press room, or traveling on Air Force One, broke a major story or held up the truth to power? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

People tend to gravitate toward information that supports previously-held views, and avoid coverage that challenges those same positions. Psychologists and analysts refer to this as reinforcement bias. As the political discourse has become more polarized, we've seen prime examples of news organizations tailoring their coverage (and message) toward certain points of view. There's a danger here that if this trend continues, it could lead to an inverse bell curve of media outlets, heavily populated at both extremes but minimalist in the center. Truth becomes secondary to the message.

Watching my local television news team struggle to maintain relevence (and audience), I've seen so many swings and misses that it's becoming difficult to watch. Walking around the news room during story setups and throws, and reading what people are emailing or Twittering or Facebooking isn't the same thing as bridging the gap between old and new media. It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the chasm between old and new media, and comes off like the one middle aged man in every neighborhood who tries to appear hip by wearing inappropriate clothing and spewing jargon that makes his teen children wince.

One key driver of this struggle has been how Barack Obama has chosen to communicate, both during his campaign and now in office, often taking his message directly to the people instead of lobbing it to standard media centers for filtering and delivery. This has to be causing angst among those who are more stenographer than reporter, because there's apparently a value proposition in the information after all. What differentiates your (story, paper, magazine, newscast) from the rest? It's no longer enough to be first, or to be "the paper of record" or a venerable network anchor.

As this transition shakes out, it will be interesting to watch what changes and what stays the same. Eventually, if the past is a reliable predictor of the future, a hybrid model will develop,and we readers will benefit. But until that day, look for much teeth-grinding and back-stabbing. Old power never cedes position voluntarily.

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