More adventures in our failed media experiment

Here is the denouement of Chuck Todd's interview with Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. See if you can notice the whingeing.


Messrs. Ornstein and Mann, well regarded intellectuals in political circles, were propelled to a certain notoriety for this article they penned in the Washington Post. Among many salient points, the one that set the DC press corps aflutter was this broadside:
We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?

Also, stop lending legitimacy to Senate filibusters by treating a 60-vote hurdle as routine. The framers certainly didn’t intend it to be. Report individual senators’ abusive use of holds and identify every time the minority party uses a filibuster to kill a bill or nomination with majority support.

Look ahead to the likely consequences of voters’ choices in the November elections. How would the candidates govern? What could they accomplish? What differences can people expect from a unified Republican or Democratic government, or one divided between the parties?

Old news, no? Well, no. Partly because DC insider Chuck Todd had them on his show, giving them another chance to tell him to his face that his profession was failing in its duty of telling the truth. But partly, also, because of Mr. Todd's defensiveness throughout the interview, culminating in this last snippet, where he bemoans that "activists" on the Left and Right are trying to "delegitimize" the mainstream press.

While Ornstein and Mann agree that getting news from activists might not be in the best interest of the Republic, they lay the blame squarely on the bent backs of the supine press. While I, of course, am certain that the information given out on most of the pragmatic Left blogosphere is as accurate as it can be, as opposed to that on sites such as Newsmax and Redstate on the Right, and Huffington Post and Firedoglake on the "left", the media is in a death spiral of legitimacy, along with most of the institutions of governance and opinion in the United States.

In Fox News, we have an operation that purports to be reporting on a factual basis. (Let's, for the sake of argument, ignore the evening "opinion" shows.) In the run up to the election, however, all the Fox News "analysts" were surer than they were of their own names that the polling showing President Obama with a comfortable lead under-reported Mitt Romney's true strength, oversampling Democrats in the erroneous assumption that 2012 would be like 2008 in the electorate's makeup. Karl Rove's on-air meltdown was the natural outcome of this self-imposed bubble.

But the burnishing of Mitt Romney's chances was not limited to Fox News. CNN and MSNBC also pushed the meme that the election was too close to call, focusing on the national polling which was reporting a dead heat, rather than the state polling, showing Obama with a good lead. Of course, in an election for president in which the winner is chosen not by popular vote margin, but by state by state victories, one would imagine that the state polling would trump national numbers. However, a tied race makes for better television—the drama! The angst! The drafting of concession speeches!—rather than an analytic methodology which showed the incumbent heading towards a dominating Electoral College victory.

Mitt Romney's "47%" video should have doomed him as a candidate. His espousal of radical Republican economic policies, if reported accurately, should have had him polling 20 points behind Obama. But in the "Obama says the sky is blue, Romney says the sky is red with yellow polka dots, opinions are divided" school of reportage, the truth is a forgotten handmaiden to the fetishistic devotion to "objectivity" and "balance".

This pretense of balance favors the radical program of the GOP and the Right; ideas such as turning Medicare into a voucher system, privatizing Social Security and leaving it to the mercies of the stock market, and kicking millions of the poor off of Medicaid in the name of reform are treated with seriousness, as these ideas are bruited by one of the two major parties. The fact that Americans by large majorities reject this program—and voted against it in the last election—is of no matter. The man who says the sky is red with yellow polka dots is as "serious" as the man grounded in current reality.

This might be why more citizens are fleeing the the purview of the traditional media. The Right sees the media as still laden with unreconstructed liberals out to undermine the virtues of the ancient republic; the Left, both pragmatic and purist—more accurately—sees the media as propping up a political party and a movement whose ideas go against anything that resemble a shared commonwealth. And the news media, owned by multinational corporations which want to both preserve their prerogatives and offend as few people as possible, has forgotten the reason why the First Amendment exists: to enable those in power to be watched. Blogs such as this—both in this country and world-wide—have flowered precisely because of that fact.

As Ornstein and Mann intimate in the clip above, and write in their Washington Post piece, if the traditional news media is to stop its slide, it must lose that fear which has been beaten into it by two generations of conservative "watch dogs". It must tell the truth, even if it makes it unpopular in the DC cocktail set. Americans haven't died to protect the principle of free speech and a free media so that the news airwaves could be filled with people screaming at each other and be called "debate". Much of institutional America needs rebuilding; none of it will happen unless and until the media rebuilds itself.