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From AJR,   April/May 2005  issue

Hold That Obit   

They’re on the ropes, but it’s not over yet for the battered mainstream media.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Have the collective mainstream media become, to borrow the old Richard Nixon phrase, a "pitiful, helpless giant"?

They're on the ropes, but it's not over yet for the battered mainstream media.

It certainly has felt that way in recent months.

First the ascendant blogosphere eviscerated CBS' deeply flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service. A high-level inquiry ensued. Soon the network was apologizing, longtime staffers were gone, and Dan Rather was wishing us all "courage" somewhat ahead of schedule.

Then CNN honcho Eason Jordan startled a high-powered (and off-the-record) international confab by asserting that American troops had targeted journalists in Iraq. While Jordan quickly backed off, the damage had been done. The episode quickly came to light--on a blog, of course.

While traditional news organizations did little with the flap at first, the blogosphere beat it like a drum. Like CBS before it, CNN responded cluelessly, failing to recognize that the controversy wasn't about to simply go away. Then, overreacting in the other direction, Jordan stepped down, perhaps with some encouragement.

While there's no doubt some of the right-wing bloggers' expressions of self-satisfaction would draw penalty flags for excessive celebration from NFL officials, this clearly was an impressive display of might. Of course the blogs didn't bring down these media giants by themselves, but there's no question they played a critical role in both episodes.

(It should be added that the smug satisfaction factor is strictly bipartisan. Equally over-the-top were the bloggers on the left who did in faux journalist/male escort Jeff Gannon, er, James Dale Guckert, of White House press credentials and softball questions fame.)

So what does it all mean? Are we at a turning point? Are those creaky old newspapers and TV networks and all the rest of that timeworn MSM on the way out?

J. Matt Barber certainly thinks so. "Even today obstinate, lumbering, big-media dinosaurs inhabit and roam the vast terrain of Paleolithic journalism," he wrote on America's Voices, a self-described forum for conservative Americans. "Theirs is a rapidly dying breed, having succumbed to stubbornly self-inflicted wounds of poorly camouflaged liberal bias--all this, lending credence within conservative circles to the popular 'pea-brain' hypothesis."

Well, let's not run the obit quite yet.

To be sure, as you may have noticed, the mainstream media have serious problems. The audience of the nightly network newscasts continues to shrink, as does newspaper circulation. Young people have shown little interest in acquiring the newspaper habit. And the scandals and self-inflicted wounds pile up, each one a fresh blow to the media's sagging credibility.

Equally discouraging is the public apathy in the face of mounting government secrecy and burgeoning efforts to force journalists to identify confidential sources. While editors and reporters like to think of themselves as working on behalf of the people, as their proxy, the people sure don't share that view--perhaps because too often these days business imperatives seem to overwhelm public service responsibilities.

But the fact remains that the much-maligned mainstream media have an important mission, one that it's tough to envision anyone else carrying out--today, anyway. That's covering the news. It's a very costly, labor-intensive process. And somebody's got to do it.

At a conference on blogging at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in January, New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson mentioned that her paper had spent $1 million covering the war in Iraq last year. No matter how incisive the blogosphere commentary, no matter how vivid the post of the citizen-blogger, there really is no substitute for the reportage of the trained journalist, on the scene doing his or her best to sort out the truth. And working for a news organization that--yes, yes, I know, liberal media and all that--doesn't report with a political agenda.

And it's not just major world news like Iraq. Someone's got to staff the nation's city councils and school boards and cop shops. Someone has to provide the information citizens need in a democracy (and bloggers need to blog).

The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with the advent of cable, talk radio, the Internet. The power of the big hitters of yore--the top papers, the old-school networks--is much diminished.

But while the field is crowded, no economic model has yet emerged to finance a full-scale newsgathering operation in cyberspace. That's why all those we'll-eat-your-lunch boasts of the heady Internet days of the mid-1990s turned out to be so hollow.

So, for better or worse, we're stuck with the lumbering old MSM for a while longer.

Now let's just hope they can play up to the level that the country needs and deserves.