The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


John Cole is pioneering a new intellectual fashion, criticizing conservatives for being overly critical of the media. The best discussion I have seen is from Jeff Goldstein. Neither party, however, seems to make the obvious point that government (and ruling party) hostility to media is an inevitable dialectical response to the media's anti-authority mindset.

There are two types of bias in the media. One is the ideological bias so frequently commented on elsewhere; the other is the bias in favor of "explosive" scoops and "gotcha" stories. No reporter has ever gained fame and fortune by pointing out everything government officials do right. With Republicans solidly in power, these two biases reinforce one another.

What is an administration to do? Any policy justifications it offers will be deconstructed; any factual analyses will be cherry-picked for harbingers of doom. The natural response is to tell the press nothing; to depend on non-mainstream disseminators of news, like talk radio and now blogs; and, for the activist, to discredit the (temporarily) hostile press.

CNN were willing to whitewash Saddam Hussein's regime in exchange for continued "access". It is possible that they are incapable of seeing the domestic parallel?

An inquisitive, independent press is a crucial strength of the American system. A press forced to bargain for access, with more favorable coverage leading to better information in the future, would seem far inferior even to the current status quo. How can the current struggle between government and press be defused before it reaches this state?

I don't have a good answer here. Government has an incentive toward secrecy, which the press must combat. But in a world of competing sources of truth, the tendency of the press to denigrate some (government and corporate) while uncritically amplifying others (ideologically pleasing nonprofit) gives its readers a picture which is distorted to the point of delusion.

One thing I am sure of is that the struggle to control the news should be seen for what it is, and should be waged publicly. If we get many competing points of view out there, cheek by jowl, citizens have a good chance of successfully balancing them. Doing this in the blogosphere requires a strong stomach, because you are never more than two clicks away from a howling extremist. But I can envision an amazing opportunity for a news source which would filter the debate, not by removing one side, but by removing the rough edges and guaranteeing its readers a civil discourse.