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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Mainstream Media, R.I.P.

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; 9:17 AM

The media are dead. Toast. Yesterday's news.

So says Howard Fineman.

Who, last time I checked, was a charter member of the media elite, holding forth for Newsweek and as an MSNBC talking head.

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He's not really saying the media are dead, since that presumably would require all of us to get real jobs. Fineman has this theory that the media are a political party, and as such have about as much of a pulse as the Tammany Hall bosses of yore.

I agree with everything ol' Howie writes here except his central thesis (and I know political reporters with nothing more exciting to opine on than the DNC race often use the media for a fallback column).

Are the big media losing influence? Are they dropping in public esteem? Do more and more people think they're biased? Are bloggers and talk-radio types stealing some of their thunder and undermining their credibility? Does the ink rub off on your hands? Yes, yes and yes.

Do they serve as an opposition force, holding, or trying to hold, politicians accountable? Absolutely.

But to cast the media as a party, even as a journalistic device, is seriously off the mark. For one thing, they're way too disorganized, even by Democratic standards. For another, they don't push an agenda. (Well, most of the time. Major news outlets are certainly more sympathetic to abortion rights, gay rights and cultural liberalism than much of the general public, and that's reflected in the coverage.)

But the stereotype--they're liberal, and therefore they work overtime to stick it to Republicans--doesn't hold up. Some journalists clearly liked Clinton during the '92 campaign, but anyone who thinks the Clinton administration got good coverage from the press--remember that Whitewater, Travelgate, illegal fundraising, Paula Jones, Kathleeen Willey, Monica Lewinsky and the Marc Rich pardon were all press-driven stories--is seriously misguided. Relations between the Clinton team and the Fourth Estate were incredibly tense in '98 and '99. And Kerry was often depicted by the press as a cold and bumbling candidate, at least until the debates.

I know Fineman thinks he's been fair to GOPers over the years. Wouldn't that make him a disloyal party member?

This isn't to say there aren't examples of journalists out to get Republicans, or at least holding them to a different standard. In many people's eyes, the CBS/National Guard fiasco is Exhibit A. As an overall proposition, I don't think this quite gives the media the metaphorical status of a party.

But here's Fineman's argument:

"A political party is dying before our eyes -- and I don't mean the Democrats. I'm talking about the 'mainstream media,' which is being destroyed by the opposition (or worse, the casual disdain) of George Bush's Republican Party; by competition from other news outlets (led by the internet and Fox's canny Roger Ailes); and by its own fraying journalistic standards. At the height of its power, the AMMP (the American Mainstream Media Party) helped validate the civil rights movement, end a war and oust a power-mad president. But all that is ancient history.

"The AMMP is reeling, and not just from the humiliation of CBS News. We have a president who feels it's almost a point of honor not to hold more press conferences -- he's held far fewer than any modern predecessor -- and doesn't seem to agree that the media has any 'right' to know what's really going in inside his administration. The AMMP, meanwhile, is regarded with ever growing suspicion by American voters, viewers and readers, who increasingly turn for information and analysis only to non-AMMP outlets that tend to reinforce the sectarian views of discrete slices of the electorate.

"Yes, I know: A purely objective viewpoint does not exist in the cosmos or in politics. Yes, I know: Today's media foodfights are mild compared with the viciousness of pamphleteers and partisan newspapers of old, from colonial times forward. Yes, I know: The notion of a neutral 'mainstream' national media gained a dominant following only in World War II and in its aftermath, when what turned out to be a temporary moderate consensus came to govern the country.

"Still, the notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press was, to me at least, worth holding onto. Now it's pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things. The seeds of its demise were sown with the best of intentions in the late 1960s, when the AMMP was founded in good measure (and ironically enough) by CBS. Old folks may remember the moment: Walter Cronkite stepped from behind the podium of presumed objectivity to become an outright foe of the war in Vietnam. Later, he and CBS's star White House reporter, Dan Rather, went to painstaking lengths to make Watergate understandable to viewers, which helped seal Richard Nixon's fate as the first president to resign. . . .

"Some Republicans learned how to manipulate the AMMP, especially its growing obsession with personalities -- and its desire to be regarded as even-handed. The objective wasn't to win the AMMP's approval, but to isolate it by uncoupling its longterm relationship with the Democrats. At least that's what happened in the Monica Lewinsky Years: The party that had nominated him in 1992 had eventually impeached him, thanks in good part to information supplied by GOP investigators...

"Bush doesn't hate the AMMP (indeed, he likes his share of reporters on a personal basis). He just refuses to care about what it's up to."

Which may be smart politics on his part.

Andrew Sullivan jumps on the Fineman bandwagon:

"His admission that the mainstream media have acted as a de facto political party for three decades strikes me as a big deal - the first crack of self-awareness in the MSM. But I truly hope the blogosphere doesn't become its replacement. Blogs are strongest when they are politically diverse, when they are committed to insurgency rather than power, when they belong to no party. I'm particularly worried that the blogosphere has become far more knee-jerk, shrill and partisan since the days when I first started blogging. Some of that's healthy and inevitable; but too much is damaging. In challenging the MSM, we should resist the temptation to become like them."

John Ellis, the Bush cousin who previously worked at Fox, makes this point about the outside panel's report on CBS:

"The blogosphere needs to get a grip. I'm not sure which was more pathetic, bloggers posting their phone numbers for 'media interviews' or all the bloviating about 'whitewash' and 'cover-up.' Memo to bloggers: (1) we don't care if you're on TV and; (2) The report is the most scathing indictment of the standards and practices of CBS News ever published, by anyone at anytime (with the possible exception of Renata Adler's work on the Westmoreland vs. CBS case). Stop preening and stop whining.

Slate's Jack Shafer says the report didn't get the nature of investigative journalism:

"Although the review pretends that the Bush service story was an anomaly, a temporary unhinging of CBS News' high journalistic standards, anybody who has worked with investigative reporters will recognize the fact-shaving, source-buttering, and ethics-skirting practiced by Mapes and her colleagues. Investigative reporters are a different breed of human being, possessed of the absolute conviction that their wild hunches are provable. They're well-practiced at selectively quoting people and documents, overstating their case, and shamelessly revising their previous statements at a moment's notice if they believe it will serve their project. And that's no slam. Investigative reporters don't construct their stories from press handouts; they burrow into deep, dark, and dangerous terrain to uncover truths. If they weren't as resourceful at compromising reality, we'd have no investigative reporting at all.

"For that reason, I found myself quarrelling with the reviewers -- as opposed to their findings -- as I paged through it. I rarely got the sense that the eight lawyers and one retired news executive (who spent three months and anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million on their review, based on my back-of-the-envelope estimates) understand how investigative reporters do what they do."

As for the no-evidence-of-bias finding, Shafer writes: "I won't provoke the investigative-journalist union by alleging that most of its members are Democrats or lefties, but aside from a few right-wing reporters sucking conservative teats inside the government, how many Republican investigative aces can you name?"

Jonathan Last says in the Weekly Standard says the panel took a dive on the question of whether the Guard memos were fake, despite the findings of Peter Tytell, its own expert:

"The panel reports, 'Tytell concluded that the Killian documents were generated on a computer.'

"So how did Thornburgh and Boccardi manage to walk away from their own expert's decisive verdict? The answer is hidden in footnote 16 on page 7 of Appendix 4:

"Although his reasoning seems credible and persuasive, the Panel does not know for certain whether Tytell has accounted for all alternative typestyles that might have been available on typewriters during that era.

"Leave aside the 'no political bias' finding; leave aside the kid-glove treatment of Dan Rather and Andrew Heyward. This abdication of responsibility by the panel in the face of their own expert's conclusions is so startling that it legitimately calls into question--by itself--everything else in the report."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum takes issue with a quote in my CBS story yesterday:

"'In any fair-minded assessment of how CBS performed and why they so badly butchered their own standards, this has to be part of the explanation,' said former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University. 'It's not just that they wanted to be first, they wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president.'

"This is a common opinion, but the problem is that it doesn't back up the charge of political bias. Just the opposite.

"The fact is, Roberts has it exactly right: CBS wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president. It didn't matter that George Bush happened to be president at the time. They just wanted a bombshell story about the president.

"Anyone who thinks otherwise needs a reality check. Bill Clinton was trashed by the press like no president since Richard Nixon, frequently on the basis of spoon fed lies from rabid Clinton haters, and Al Gore was lampooned mercilessly during the 2000 campaign by a press corps that openly despised him. There are plenty of things to be said about this -- Bob Somerby is your go-to guy on this subject -- but partisan bias is not high on the list.

"There's nothing an investigative reporter wants more than a big story about the president. Any president. Was that part of the reason CBS rushed the National Guard story? Of course. Was the fact that Bush was Republican also part of the reason? Not likely. History just doesn't back that up.

"Conspiracy theorists please take note."

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass ponders Dan's role:

"There's an argument to be made that Dan Rather should have been fired as the ax fell on other CBS employees for the phony story on President Bush's National Guard service. It ran just before the election, not as honestly biased commentary but as an allegedly neutral report that was actually a political hit piece and based on phony documents. . . .

"What's also ridiculous is that Rather's name was on a story he was barely involved with. He didn't report it, he hardly supervised it, and he may not have even bothered to watch it before it aired. After it was determined that the documents couldn't be authenticated, Rather apologized but insisted the story was true. . . .

Jay Rosen's PressThink blog has what television will think of as a radical suggestion:

"A simple example of a different approach: Sixty Minutes could publish on the Internet (as transcript and video) the full interviews from which each segment that airs is made. All interviews, every frame. Even the interviews that were not used. Producers and correspondents would instantly become more accountable for these interviews and the selections made from them. And in my view that would strengthen the journalism, make for better work; it would also be a revolution in accountability. CBS would be creating more value by publishing more source material, although it would also be more open to criticism and scrutiny...

"Personally, I hope that broken contraption 'trust us, we're CBS,' forces the network into the clear skies of a new idea: We used to do our reporting in a way that required the public to trust us, the professional journalists. It worked for a while, but times and platforms change. Now we have to do our reporting in a way that persuades the public to trust us."

Is this Washington Post story an example of Defining Democracy Down?

"With just over two weeks until the Iraq election, the United States is lowering its expectations for both the turnout and the results of the vote, increasingly emphasizing other steps over the next year as more important to Iraq's political transformation, according to U.S. officials."

Alberto Gonzales told us the administration was really, really against torture, but now comes this New York Times report:

"At the urging of the White House, Congressional leaders scrapped a legislative measure last month that would have imposed new restrictions on the use of extreme interrogation measures by American intelligence officers, Congressional officials say.

"The defeat of the proposal affects one of the most obscure arenas of the war on terrorism, involving the Central Intelligence Agency's secret detention and interrogation of top terror leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and about three dozen other senior members of Al Qaeda and its offshoots.

"The Senate had approved the new restrictions, by a 96-to-2 vote, as part of the intelligence reform legislation. They would have explicitly extended to intelligence officers a prohibition against torture or inhumane treatment, and would have required the C.I.A. as well as the Pentagon to report to Congress about the methods they were using.

"But in intense closed-door negotiations, Congressional officials said, four senior members from the House and Senate deleted the restrictions from the final bill after the White House expressed opposition."

Ninety-two senators support it and the Bushies nix it?

I have no particular reason to include this New York Post cover story, except perhaps to illustrate that the British royals will be entertaining us for decades to come:

"Britain's Prince Harry stunned more than 250 guests at a costume party by showing up dressed head-to-toe as a Nazi soldier, with a red armband emblazoned with a big swastika.

"Harry, third in line to the throne behind dad Prince Charles and brother William, incredibly pulled the stupid stunt less than three weeks before his uncle Prince Edward represents their family and country at a solemn ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

"Harry wore the attire of a member of Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel's infamous Afrika Korps, The Sun newspaper in London reports.

"Last night, 20-year-old Harry issued an apology for appearing in the atrocious get-up. 'I am very sorry if I have caused any offense,' he said. 'It was a poor choice of costume, and I apologize.'"

A poor choice of costume?

Most depressing quote of the day: E! Entertainmet President Ted Harbert, justifying his network's plan to stage daily reenactments--reenactments!--of the Michael Jackson trial, according to Lisa DeMoraes:

"This is well within the parameters of responsible reporting of an important news event," he said, especially "given the stuff that goes on in the news business today."


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