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You Call That News? I Don't

By Bryan Keefer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page B02

Perhaps it's because I'm young enough that I missed the Vietnam War by the better part of a decade and would rather hear about Iraq, where people my age are fighting and dying. Or perhaps it's because I think that political campaigns should turn on more than trivia and silly political point-scoring. Whatever the reason, the last few weeks of presidential campaign coverage have struck me as symptomatic of everything that's wrong with the establishment news media from a young person's perspective.

The media's obsession with getting the latest minutiae about John Kerry and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, or the latest gossipy tidbits about President Bush's alleged past drug use, is misplaced. The endless he said/he said reporting and the airtime given to questionable allegations highlight the reason why so many young people like myself are turning away from mainstream outlets such as newspapers and network newscasts. Instead, we're increasingly choosing to get our news and analysis from the Internet and even turning to unconventional outlets like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in pursuit of the straight story.

To be blunt, the mainstream media don't give my generation what we want. We want the news and we want it now, of course -- we're spoiled that way. But more than anything, we want the entire story; not just the he said/she said, not just the latest factoid, but the truth.

To me and others raised in our media-saturated environment, where 24-hour cable news and Internet access bring us more information than we can possibly digest, the mainstream media seem trapped in the age of "All the President's Men." They're still wedded to outdated ambitions like getting the "scoop" or maintaining a veneer of objectivity, both of which are concepts that have been superseded by technology. We live in an era when PR pros have figured out how to bend the news cycle to their whims, and much of what's broadcast on the networks bears a striking resemblance to the commercials airing between segments. Like other twenty-somethings (I'm 26), I've been raised in an era when advertising invades every aspect of pop culture, and to me the information provided by mainstream news outlets too often feels like one more product, produced by politicians and publicists.

The first thing I'd say to the "old media" is, forget the scoop. Like corporate press releases, much of what passes for hot news these days isn't a scoop by any stretch of the imagination, even though it's often presented as one. News leaked by the White House, for example, which is likely to come out eventually anyway, is information, really, not news. I'd wager that among my generation, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who could remember the byline from the latest accusation about what Kerry did or didn't do in Vietnam to earn or not earn his medals. (Ditto for any story about the latest incarnation of the iPod.)

What many young media surfers do remember are the media's great successes -- and their great mistakes. What sticks in readers' minds are enduring successes like Watergate -- not the flash-in-the-pan scoops like whether The Washington Post beat the New York Times by a day with the latest accusation about Kerry's war wounds.

The media's big mistakes live in infamy. Nearly everyone I know could tell you that it was Fox News that first called Florida for George Bush during the 2000 election (they turned out to be right in the end, of course, but they were six weeks premature). Likewise (thanks in part to post facto hand-wringing by the media), most news junkies could tell you it was the New York Times that, in the run-up to the Iraq war, broke the ultimately debunked story of the aluminum tubes that unnamed administration sources claimed could be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Both of those stories were mistakes that might have been avoided if media institutions hadn't succumbed to the all-too-prevalent scoop mentality.

The irony is that the Internet and cable television have generally liberated print journalists from having to break news instantaneously. We younger news consumers don't read newspapers to find out what happened the day before, because we already know. Print media, in particular, are now free to do what cable and Internet news sources can't: provide the sort of context and analysis for readers that other outlets don't.

What's particularly striking to me is how politicians have figured out how to use the media's weaknesses against them. I've always been a news junkie, but after watching the coverage of the 2000 campaign and the spin from the candidates (and even the interest group I then worked for), I couldn't take it anymore. Along with two friends, I founded Spinsanity.org to truth-squad politicians and political spin. And for the past three years, I've seen how politicians have exploited both the media's desire for the scoop and their pretense of objectivity -- something both Bush and Kerry are doing repeatedly in this campaign season.

Here are some examples. The Bush campaign has repeatedly suggested that Kerry's plan to raise taxes on those with incomes above $200,000 is tantamount to raising taxes on small businesses. Yet the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a think tank about as close to nonpartisan as they get, has shown that, while many of those who would be affected by such an increase have some business income, only about 3 percent of all small businesses would be affected. Most journalists' accounts, however, have reported the Bush talking point without contradiction. The Kerry campaign has its own library of misleading statements, such as that 1.6 million jobs have been lost on Bush's watch. That, however, is the number for the private sector; because of gains in the public sector, the net job loss is only 900,000 since Bush took office.

Part of the problem stems from journalists' reluctance to appear as though they're taking sides. Suggesting in print that the above campaign remarks are misleading could lead to screams of "Bias!" But when the candidates have become so good at spin, the media need to understand that pointing out the truth isn't the same as taking sides.

Bombarded with political coverage that has more in common with advertising than with hard news, my generation is increasingly turning to alternative outlets to get the real story. Yet the mainstream media have yet to fully take advantage of the Internet.

To my infinite personal frustration, for instance, most news organizations have yet to support newsreader programs. These are programs that collect links to bits of information, such as Weblog postings and sports scores, and make them accessible from a computer desktop. To someone of my generation, it would seem natural for news organizations to provide such links (as online-only publications such as Slate and Salon do).

One of the best aspects of the Internet -- and what makes it particularly good as a medium for fact-checking -- is the ability to link sources of information so that news consumers can read (and judge) for themselves the truth of what is being written. After all, much reporting is based on statements in the public record or other information that's available online. If you're writing about job losses, you can point readers to a specific place on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Web site so they can decide for themselves if you (or Kerry or Bush) are doing the math right. It's hard to get away with a lie (or even subtle misinterpretation, as any blogger who has ever had to correct a piece will attest), when you link to the evidence itself. Yet as far as I can tell, no major news outlet provides such links from the online versions of its stories.

People -- young people in particular -- sense that they aren't getting the whole story (or the right story) from the established media. That's why an Internet culture of fact-checking has sprung up to keep the media honest, such as campaigndesk.org, where I work, and others such as factcheck.org and snopes.com. A number of bloggers -- ranging from the partisan (instapundit.com, atrios.blogspot.com) to the professional (pressthink.org, www.j-bradford-delong.net) -- have also leaped into the breach and helped foster a culture of fact-based media criticism.

Where can people go to get the real story on issues like Kerry's Vietnam service? The sad truth is that there isn't one single place where they can go, because hardly anyone in the mainstream media is putting the real story together effectively. Until the media begin understanding that many young people are turning away from mainstream news outlets for precisely this reason, we'll continue to go elsewhere for our news.

Author's e-mail: bryan@spinsanity.org

Bryan Keefer, an editor at Spinsanity.org and CampaignDesk.org, is co-author of "All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth" (Touchstone).

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