Well, now. "The Editors" of The New Republic have gone and penned their Thanatopsis for the traditional media. In their piece, "MSM, RIP," the editors note the public's "disdain" for the press, quantitatively ("thirty-six percent of Americans now say that the press "hurts" democracy") and qualitatively ("Put another way, the crisis in journalism is even deeper than the crisis in its business model. It is suffering a crisis of legitimacy.")
But in the next breath, things sort of go off the rails:
We all know the long list of scandals that has bloodied the profession--from Jayson Blair to Judith Miller to Dan Rather. But to focus only on these wrecks both misses the point and blames the victim.
From Stephen Glass? To Lee Siegel? Oh, but nevermind. I'm more concerned with this whole "victim" who has somehow been "blamed." Hadn't we just agreed that it was the public who'd been victimized? Apparently not:
Just as the press has been slammed by the tides of technology, it has been hit hard by the political culture. The master narratives of both the right and the left have come to include the same villain: the hypocritical, biased elite media. And their combined grouching has helped foment the anti-media backlash.
Well, now, this is just ridiculous. The master narrative of the Pepsi Corporation villainizes the good people of Coca-Cola, yet they endure, perhaps because they realize they are not weak-willed invertebrates who lack choices of their own. While both "the right and the left," in plying their case, often lamely impugn the press when their point of view fails to take root, this is not the reason the public believes the press to be damaging to democracy. The public distrusts the traditional media because of the way it responds to these pressures: not by trying to sort out the issues involved and attempting to get to a level of truth through analysis and argument, but rather by constructing tidy metanarratives, built upon the ephemera of process and window-dressing, and shooting it full of false "balance."
That's what was at play during the overheated debate on the economic stimulus package. No one in the press could explain what cutting, say, $20 billion worth of aid to states would do to enhance or diminish the effectiveness of the stimulus. No one even tried! What we learned, instead, was that such cuts increased the "bipartisan" possibilities of the bill. That opened the door for endless discussions of what winning only three GOP votes meant for Obama, and his presidency, and the future of bipartisanship. But was the bill supposed to breed inter-party comity or help keep people in their jobs? Anyway, we eventually came to this lovely moment, last Friday, when the Washington Post finally started worrying about the substance of the stimulus package just as soon as it was too late to do anything about it. And you wonder why people think the press is hurting democracy!
Oh, but look at me! BLAMING THE VICTIM! And, hey, the Editors of The New Republic, they have basically predicted my reaction:
A mirror version of this critique emerged on the left. In this telling, it was the timid, lazy press corps that failed to rigorously challenge the president's core (mendacious) claims about his tax cuts and rationale for heading to war. Very valid criticisms. But these specific objections morphed into populist broadsides against what the left came to describe as "the mainstream media"--avatars of establishmentarian groupthink who bend to the latest conventional wisdom emerging from D.C. cocktail parties and neurotically fret that they might be just as biased as their conservative critics allege. On The Huffington Post and its ilk, you would find rants about how "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."
Not fair, Editors of The New Republic. As recently as today, you would have found a well-reasoned and rational argument, making proven claims about how the media made no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom.
TNR, on the other hand, rants on:
This rhetoric creates a poisonous atmosphere. By assaulting the credibility of the press, it destroys its authority in the culture, giving cover to politicians who would rather avoid dealing with reporters in the first place.
Argh. I'm just going to refer you all to Alex Balk:
Got it? If you criticize the press for being shallow or unwilling to ask tough questions or stray outside the conventional narrative, you're going to ruin the media's authority. And then who's gonna perform the valuable function of airing two diametrically opposite views and presenting them as both carrying the same validity even if one is patently false? Bloggers? I don't think so.
Anyway, here's what the Editors of The New Republic want to have happen:
Obama can help set a tone for liberals, convincing them to ratchet down their hostility to newspapers and begin crusading on behalf of these imperiled organizations.
Uhm, no. That's not the president's job. Any president. The media can ratchet down the hostility themselves, by accepting that said hostility is founded on a premise that is valid and by dropping the pretense that it's everybody else's fault.