Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A fast and furious media shower

Forget al-Qaida, the Taliban or Osama bin Laden's fish-desiccated corpse — if you ask some people, the real villain in the U.S. is the mainstream media.

Ah, the mainstream media ... or as critics often abbreviate it, the MSM. I like seeing “MSM” in text, because it’s a quick and easy cue to be skeptical of what I’m reading.

It’s difficult to define “mainstream media,” because the concept is fluid. Many right-leaning people will lump every major media outlet that isn’t Fox News together. Bloggers will lump Fox News in as well, along with every other source bigger than a blog. Liberals may bemoan any news entity with a corporate parent that isn’t MSNBC. But however they define it, all critics agree that the mainstream media isn’t looking out for the best interests of the public.

So who do these people suggest we turn to? The answer ranges from “me” to “people who agree with me.”

To a degree, the mainstream media does have its faults. And enterprising people outside of the establishment can certainly break stories. But the valid criticisms aren’t typically the front-page material.

A journalist friend of mine tipped me off to these two pieces about the state of journalism in America. The first, by Miami Herald commentator Leonard Pitts Jr., argues that “citizen journalists” can’t and shouldn’t supplant traditional news gathering. The second, by blogger Jim Lakely, pretty much eviscerates Pitts’ stance.

Both make fair points about how the media does and should operate. But both also err. Pitts, for example, blames the collapse of the daily model on English majors making business decisions. And while it is true that English majors make terrible business decisions (such as majoring in English), I don’t think they run most publications; this is mostly a case of businesspeople making terrible business decisions.

Lakely’s shortcomings are far more significant. In trying to disprove Pitts’ point that hard journalism is best left to professionals, Lakely inadvertently proves it. He pounces on Pitts’ citation of Matt Drudge and Sarah Palin as proof that the media seeks to repress independent voices due to the liberal agenda. (I guess in Lakely’s world, no liberals ever savage the mainstream press.) Lakely turns this into an example of liberal bias, although it seems to me that if Pitts had a left-wing equivalent of either Drudge or Palin to feed off of, he could have made the same point. (If anybody is aware of any counterparts, let me know.) The resultant persecution complex shines through in everything Lakely says afterward. (“A third slam on Palin!” he wails at one point.)

Lakely chides Pitts and the press for ignoring “important stories” that brave, intrepid, independent, fearless conservative muckrakers wind up breaking. He argues that those people personify the true spirit of journalism, regardless of how the elite see them. And then he drops a paragraph that’s paradoxically both right and wrong:

OK. Let’s pop the “professional journalism” balloon right now: “Reporting” is not hard. Journalism is not a profession for which one must earn credentials. It is a trade. Reporting is a skill anyone with common sense, curiosity, and an ability to communicate can learn and hone. It involves merely a desire to pursue the truth — verifiable facts — and having the ability to report them clearly to the public. And if you’re good at it and reliable, you’ll gain readers and links and — gasp! — move a story to a state of critical mass that even the MSM has to report, as in Fast and Furious.

I don’t think Pitts would disagree at all with this supposed criticism — after all, Pitts argues that journalism is about pluck, professional conduct and endurance. But Lakely shows exactly why people like himself and his favorite news sources cannot and should not direct the national conversation: because they’re not about “pursuing the truth” and “verifiable facts.” Fast and Furious has been a conservative hot button because it involves two of their least favorite people, President Obama and attorney general Eric Holder. Coverage overwhelmingly slams them with blame for the issue, while often leaving out that the program arose from a George W. Bush initiative in the first place. The mainstream media has in fact dissected the issue completely, as they often do with conservative “scoops,” and found it be both less apocalyptic and more complex than the hysteria, as they often do with conservative “scoops.”

In the minds of the Lakelys, the failure of the media to trump up excessive right-wing controversies is proof that the media is liberal. Or as they might say, “I’m peeved that my pet scandal is not getting the amount of press I think it deserves, which is screaming headlines on every front page, website and newscast in America. It can only be because said media wants to hide the truth. I want to get the truth out there — and by truth I mean, whatever ideological construct I already have in mind.”

As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. It seems to me that those who want to challenge the mainstream media — wherever they sit on the fence — want to be liberated from the duty to facts and ethics more than anything else. They think their ideological spin should replace meat-and-potatoes journalism, a view that displays a staggering ignorance of (or contempt for) news standards.

So don’t give them the keys just yet. At least wait until they get their learner’s permit.

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