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| Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Franklin Foer of The New Republic on Liberal Bloggers and Pressbashing

        Originally here.

Bad News
by Franklin Foer
Post date: 12.19.05
Issue date: 12.26.05
        Two months ago, I began reading the newspaper with a new set of eyes.  That's when The New Republic launched The Plank, a crackling blog to which I regularly contribute.  Before my new career, I had largely consumed the Times, the Post, and the Journal in search of information.  Now I read them in search of items.  This eternal quest for Plank grist has changed my relationship to these papers.  They used to be my Starbucks buddies, but now I treat them more as adversaries, to be debunked and ridiculed.

        Newspapers deserve an army of enemies that nag them to be less lazy, less timid, and less nice.  But they don't deserve the savage treatment that they routinely receive in the blogosphere.  The problem isn't just that they have been flogged by bloggers desperate for material.  It's that the blogosphere nurses an ideological disdain for "Mainstream Media"--or MSM, as it has derisively (and somewhat adolescently) come to be known.  Perusing the Huffington Post, a hub of liberal blogging, you'll find the MSM lambasted for its "usual sub-par, unsatisfactory, wholly misinformed, shitty job"; the MSM is, after all, filled with "lazy stenographer[s] ...  posing as journalist[s who] will gladly cut and paste this Republican propaganda." Or, to put it even more bluntly, the "Beltway media really makes no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom--no matter how inane, stupid and ridiculous it is."

        You would expect this kind of populism from the right, which long ago pioneered the trashing of the MSM, or, as Spiro Agnew famously called its practitioners, "nattering nabobs of negativism." The right has used media-bashing as political gimmickry--"Annoy the media, vote for Bush" was a 1992 slogan--and to produce mega-selling books like Bernard Goldberg's manifesto, Bias.  When they take these shots, they don't just intend to rally their rank and file.  They want to weaken the press so it will stop obstructing their agenda, a motive that liberal bloggers seem to have forgotten.  By repeating conservative criticisms about the allegedly elitist, sycophantic, biased MSM, liberal bloggers have played straight into conservative hands.  These bloggers have begun unwittingly doing conservatives' dirty work.

        What they're attacking is the MSM's Progressive-era ethos of public-minded disinterestedness.  By embracing the idea of objectivity, newspapers took a radical turn from the raw partisanship that guided them in the nineteenth century.  "Without fear or favor" was Times owner Adolph Ochs's famous phrase.  That "objective" style worked well for many years, because, in the postwar period, political elites shared broad assumptions about policy with one another--and the media.  But the Bush administration has violently rejected that consensus.  And, instead of playing by the old rules that governed the relationship between reporters and the White House, it has exploited them.  For starters, there was the 2000 campaign, in which the press presented Bush as essentially the heir to Clintonian centrism, even though most of his policy prescriptions should have led reporters to a very different conclusion.  The Bushies pulled off this legerdemain--and repeated the trick many times--by taking advantage of the news media's disinterested style, which obliges it to give a hearing to both sides of a debate, even if one side has uttered a total falsehood.  My colleague Jonathan Chait has argued, "[The press is] evenhanded to a fault, presenting every side of an argument as equally valid, even if one side uses demonstrably false information and the other doesn't.  Bush has exploited this tendency ruthlessly, most memorably in 2000, when he described his tax cut as consuming a mere quarter of the projected budget surplus."

        Perhaps the rules of journalism should be modernized to short-circuit this tactic.  Reporters should have greater latitude to point out distortions without worrying that they have violated the laws of objectivity.  And there's already evidence that some newspapers have gotten wise to the administration's game, adopting a more adversarial stance.  But, after examining the news media's failings, many liberal bloggers still conclude that the system is beyond repair.  They have begun to dismiss the MSM as doomed avatars of the ancien rĂ©gime.  Atrios, one of the most popular of the liberal bloggers, recently threw up his arms: "If idiots destroy institutions there's no reason to continue to respect them." (Their derisive attitude resembles nothing more than the New Left, which charged journalism with dulling the sense and sensibility of the masses, preventing them from seeing the horrors of the capitalist order.)

        The mainstream blogosphere (MSB) is only too happy to bury the old media regime, because it has an implicit vision for a new order, one that would largely consist of ...  bloggers.  In other words, they envision a universe that resembles the nineteenth-century partisan newspapers or the Fleet Street model, where writers and thinkers break from the illusion of "objectivity" and print the "truth." (I acknowledge that the liberal blogosphere is hardly a monolith and that blogs don't always lend themselves to coherent thought, but common themes and arguments are clear enough.)

        This model stinks for countless reasons.  But its most fundamental flaw is that bloggers will always be dismissed by their opponents as biased.  And, while conservatives would like to treat the Times and the Post this way, they can't.  They know that if a story--for example, Abu Ghraib or the CIA secret prisons--appears in one of those papers, it most likely has a strong basis in fact.  Despite black marks like WMD reportage--and a small but visible minority of bad-apple reporters--old media still have enough prestige and authority to play referee.

        +There's another reason that liberals shouldn't be so quick to help conservatives crush old media.  Because of the right's alliance with business, it simply has more resources to shovel at its institutions--and it has been doing exactly that for the last 40 years.  And, unlike liberals, conservatives have already proved themselves masters of partisan media, where they reduce their political program into highly saleable, entertaining populism.  If the battle of ideas doesn't have credible, neutral arbiters like the so-called MSM--and liberals jump into an ideological shoving match with bigger, badder, conservative outlets--there's no question which side will prevail.

Franklin Foer is a senior editor at TNR.

        End of Archived Material

        And always remember Steve's words of political wisdom:


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