Thursday, November 04, 2004

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Jay Rosen continues his excellent ongoing series of postings analyzing the challenges and opportunities for news media in light of recent events over on Press Think (Are We Headed for an Opposition Press?). However, I disagree with some of the dichotomies with which Rosen sketches the possible future:

Whatever happens with the news networks, which is only part of the picture, what's more plausible to you: the "cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics" will increasingly come to define mainstream American media, or... Big Media will successfully hold itself back from politics, and the major news sources will remain in the "nonaligned" movement?
In politics we have opposition parties. Those in each party express one position when it is their party in charge, and castigate the same position when it is championed by the other party in charge. How expected. And how sad. Is this the future we want the press to adopt?

Why not a press that is the permanent party of skepticism and contingent thinking? How about a press, not without bias, certainly, but with a commitment to exposing the facts and a humble recognition of the possibility for error? Why not a press firmly on the side of transparency? Such a position is hardly apolitical. In fact, it is radically engaged with and opposed to "politics" as well as the "view from nowhere."

This expansion of the political into "news" and commentary coincides with greater transparency for the big news combines, which are more successfully scrutinized than they have ever been. Various layers of protection once kept journalists from the knowledge the public had of their mistakes. That layer seems gone now.
Layers of protection? Only if you consider the Maginot Line a success. Lack of transparency was a false protection. Embracing transparency is the only defense.
In Bushworld, all is different. There is no fourth estate; an invalid theory, says Bush. The press is not a watchdog for the public, but another interest group that wants something. (Or it's an arm of our opponents's operation.) But the press is weak, and almost passe, in the Administrations view. There is no need to deal with it most of the time. It can be denied access with impunity. It can be attacked for bias relentlessly, which charges up Bush supporters. It can be fed gruel in plush surroundings and will come back the next day. The Bush crowd has completely changed the game on journalists, knowing that journalists are unlikely to respond with action nearly as bold.
Well, yeah. Big Media is an interest group and frequently acts like one. One can hardly blame Bush for taking advantage of the obviousness weaknesses of the press. It was bound to happen.
Washington journalism likes to imagine itself the Administration's great adversary, but most of the time it relies on access journalism-- not the adversarial kind. "Sources make news" is the first tenet in that system, and that gives sources power. But access journalism makes less and less sense when there is no access, and sources rarely deviate from the party line. The White House press corps has always been based on access, so much so that the alternatives to it have almost been forgotten. I think there will be pressure to abandon the whole dream of press access under Bush, and re-position some forces accordingly.
Exactly. And I hope there is such pressure, though I don't hold out much hope. Non-access-based journalism is a lot more work, and you don't get invited to nearly as many cocktail parties.
I expect some news organizations to begin dealing with these pressures by essentially giving in on several counts-- for example, that newsrooms are populated by liberals and conservative voices are too few. Or some sort of concession like that. Coming to terms with "liberal bias" could be seen as a way of recognizing the reality of the election and responding to continued anger at the press. The most likely place for those efforts to begin is with the supposed finding that "moral values" (read religion) were the top concern of voters, and yet this is not a strength of the liberal, secular press, therefore we need to change-- something like that. After the Republican sweep, I expect some major initiatives on the bias front.
Sigh. Of course, if this is the "solution" then the media has asked the wrong question. It isn't about the "bias." It is about the transparency. It is about the conversation with readers. It is about the links to other sources.
Keep your eye on Sinclair Broadcasting, in my view a new kind of media company-- a political empire with television stations. It was built to prosper in the conditions I have described. It already has a self-conscious political identity. It is already steeped in culture war. And it admires and imitates the Bush method of changing the world, but keeping the same language for the new situation.
I've said it before, I'll say it again. Sinclair is the result of our current broadcast regulatory scheme that turns broadcasters into gatekeepers. Change the regulation to reduce gatekeeping and you solve the Sinclair problem. Unfortunately, too many entrenched interests, including politicians and, more importantly, other broadcasters, like gatekeepers. Yeah, I'd like to see the solutions that Big Media proposes to the gatekeeper problem. That'll happen. Sure.

The press must change, and it won't be easy. Opening up formerly closed processes hardly ever is. Mistakes will be made, complaints will be ubiquitous. The challenges are clear, the opportunities many. Personally, I'm mildly optimistic about this whole thing.


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