In Defense Of The Mainstream Media

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For the better part of two decades, “mainstream media” has been mostly an epithet. For conservatives, it described the cabal of secret lefty elites, who slanted news reporting in favor of their Upper West Side agenda. For liberals, it was the corporate club of lazy, self-important stenographers who happily carried water for whomever held power–and especially for Republicans in the run-up and execution of the Iraq War. For the moderate, less-engaged news consumer, it was just sort of a lame bother, suffering from the same phoniness as our other discredited national institutions.

Of course, the mass political media never went away. It remained hugely profitable and widely consumed, but it has been suffering from a sort of crises of relevance. As online media, and cable television, matured, the old popular broadcasters of a centrist, less directly-opinionated type of journalism were supplanted as the primary referee of the national political debate by new, louder voices, who more freely embraced open advocacy, and built niche audiences around shared concerns. You know whom I am talking about. Chances are you listen to talk radio, watch Fox News or MSNBC, read the political blogs, or check the ideological news aggregators.

There are some signs, however, that this pendulum now may be reaching the edge of its outward swing. The dominant frustration of the past several months, it seems to me, has not been less with the mainstream media, with its traditional style of reportage for the masses, but with the excesses of the voices that have come to replace it. I wouldn’t go so far as to predict a great new era of civility for our national politics. But I do believe there is a growing recognition that what has grown up in reaction to the mass-market journalistic enterprise, for all its assets, is not really an improvement.

Last year, this sentiment came in the form of Jon Stewart’s march on Washington, with its focus on reducing the volume and absurd viciousness of the mostly niche media’s political debate. This year you see it in the leaders of both political parties, who seem, at least since the midterm elections, far more interested in winning the political center than firing up the bases. You have seen it in the coverage of the shootings in Arizona, which bifurcated largely along these lines. Both sides of the niche political press rushed to attack each other, aiming for advantage or at least to defend their ground, while the old-line press played a far more sober and, it seems to me, appropriate role of actually reporting on what had happened.

As David von Drehle pointed out in this week’s TIME cover story, the coverage among those in the niche media focused on feeding long-standing grievances and largely missed the point. As David put it,

Go ahead and cry. That’s perfectly normal. Feel the disgust rise up as you contemplate the senseless waste of this scene. Ask, as any reasonable person would, why — nearly four years after the massacre at Virginia Tech, where 33 died, including the shooter — an obviously deranged college student can still fall so easily through the cracks, only to emerge with a gun in his hand. What is not normal is the reaction of a relatively small but very loud and influential cabal of political commentators who immediately harvested Loughner’s atrocity as fuel for their noise machine.

Some call David’s thesis “false equivalence,” since he posits as comparable the inflammatory rhetoric of pundits on both political edges. But at some point, keeping this kind of score is not enough. It becomes more important to observe that the whole discourse is off track than to try to pin the tail on who started it first, or did the most damage.

So going forward, what is the role of a popular, mainstream press? Can it reclaim some of its lost authority? I am one who believes that the technological changes over the last decade have been good for our democracy, even as it has been bad for the long-range earning potential of reporters like myself. The Internet creates a sort of central clearinghouse, a nearly meritocratic system, where the most in-demand information, regardless of origin, gets the broadest distribution. In other words, we approach a public discussion that more closely reflects the demands of information consumers.

But I am also a traditionalist, in a way. I believe in a sort of journalism that claims not objectivity but subjectivity in service to fairness and accuracy, a good faith effort to always strive for the most complete and instructive rendering of reality. This can be done in the ideologically-niched press, where I spent the majority of my career before coming to TIME. But too often riling passions and building audience share takes precedent there. In the same way, the mainstream press has its faults. For one thing, it too often relies on esteemed authorities who offer superficial analysis that lacks real insight or reporting to back it up.

That said, I have long been uncomfortable with a strain of media criticism that has grown up in recent years that seeks to tar those who consider themselves less ideological with the ideology-of-the-center label, as if all the approaches to journalism produce the same flawed result. Perhaps the most precise theory in this regard comes from Jay Rosen, who has posited a partly useful, but overbroad theory of the “savvy” journalist.

Savvy itself is a slippery concept, as it combines in one catch-all term lots of positive attributes (knowledge, understanding, intelligence, shrewdness) with some negative ones (phoniness, canniness, hipness, narcissism, exclusivity). Rosen’s great innovation was to repurpose the term, in the context of political journalism, as a sort of anti-knowledge posing as supreme knowledge, a sophistication that exists in opposition to reality.

In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.

So in Rosen’s conception, many of the attributes that journalists believe to be good—like a knowledge and understanding of what is happening–are in fact warning signs of a collective self-delusion. We political reporters exist, he suggests, to elevate ourselves above the rabble of partisanship, ideology, and passion, so that we can pat each other on the back in the CNN powder room. Certainly, there is some truth to this some of the time. The great volume of daily journalistic product by those in the institutional press corps inevitably includes much error and hot-winded pablum, and there are entire armies of well-credential, bespoke pundits who populate cable television authoritatively saying things that they thought up while shaving just a few hours earlier.

The question is whether this concept of the savvy is, as Rosen suggests, the “professional religion” of journalistic scribblers. (Swampland commenter Stuart Zechman follows up this line, arguing that the mainstream media has a centrist ideology as pronounced as the ideologies in liberal and conservative media.) It is a serious charge, since we reporters exist to represent, to the best of our abilities, reality, as it exists independent of ideology, aiming to approach something like fairness and accuracy through our admittedly subjective work. And if Rosen is right, then the great mass of us, in fact, have a distorting effect, as we attempt to minimize and disqualify other perspectives that we deem less “in the know.” Writes Rosen:

[I]n order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy.  This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.

There are lots of problems with the way reporting is done in Washington. There is lots of bad work that is produced. But it occurs to me that David’s cover story this week can easily be characterized as the sort of “savvy” work that Rosen condemns. It pulls rank, in a way, and disapproves of the shouting matches on left and right. And yet, it also, I would argue, tells the national story in a way that fulfills the best of what journalism should be about. It is this sort of work that should make the “mainstream media” proud. It shows a way forward.