Campaign '08: MSM's Last Hurrah

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The 2008 presidential election likely will go down in history as the last hurrah for the mainstream media when it comes to its influence over national politics.

The once pre-eminent authority of newspapers and broadcast networks in national campaigns will be diminished sharply in the future by three major and seemingly unstoppable trends:

:: Shrinking audiences and decaying advertising revenues respectively will reduce the reach and resources that the mainstream media traditionally have enjoyed in covering presidential campaigns.

:: Any remotely competent national campaign in the future will go over the heads of the media by emulating the successful interactive tactics that Barack Obama employed to raise record campaign funding; build highly effective real and virtual networks, and energize a previously apathetic generation of young and heavily wired voters.

:: The new generation of media-savvy voters will take full advantage of the abundance of news, commentary and raw information (campaign finance reports, voting records and polling data) available to them on the web. They not only will use those resources to educate themselves but also, in many cases, will add their voices to what is bound to become a national, 24/7, no-holds-barred town hall meeting.

While it may be great for our democracy to have more citizens more actively involved in the political ferment, the consequence is that MSM will be marginalized as never before in terms of audience and credibility.

In fact, the marginalization is well under way.

The 33.5 million households watching Obama's 30-minute infomercial last week represented a larger audience than viewed either American Idol (28 million) or the interminable final game of the World Series (19.8 million).

The infomercial dwarfed the evening news audiences of the Big Three networks, which last week were 8.4 million households for NBC, 8.1 million for ABC and 6.2 million for CBS. Bill O'Reilly, who typically is the top draw on cable news, attracted an average audience in October of 3.1 million households, according to TV Newser.

Newspaper circulation has declined so much in recent years that it has fallen back to where it was in the mid-1940s, when the country's population was half the size it is today. Only 18% of Americans now buy a daily newspaper vs. 36% in 1945.

Public confidence in the mainstream media has been eroding for at least a decade.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that only 19% of respondents trusted their local newspapers in 2006, as compared with 29% in 1998. In the same period, trust in national newspapers slid to 21% from 32%, broadcast news fell to 22% from 27% and cable news slipped to 25% from 37%. Confidence in the National Enquirer, however, doubled to 6%.

With the credibility of the media sagging well before the 2008 presidential campaign got under way in earnest, the MSM did themselves little good by repeatedly misreading the tealeaves throughout the primary cycle.

Wrapping up the race this weekend in the Washington Post, the distinguished David S. Broder characterized this as the best campaign from a journalistic perspective that he has covered since 1960. But his piece also is a vivid reminder of how often the national media were wrong about such things as the inevitability of Hillary Clinton or the improbability of Mike Huckabee winning the Iowa primary and John McCain topping the Republican ticket.

MSM haters won't let us soon forget the uncommon number of times that the common wisdom proved incorrect among the gaggle in the bubble on the bus.

The last indignity for the MSM - and the one that virtually assures the decline of its future influence - will be self-inflicted.

As soon as the election is over, the Washington bureaus and national desks at most newspapers, magazines and networks are almost sure to be dramatically reduced by their parent companies to offset the sustained declines they have been suffering in advertising sales.

In the process, we will lose the insights and efforts of many of the talented professionals who over the years have attempted to inject a degree of honesty and balance into the inherently ill-disciplined realms of government and politics.

The MSM haters may be glad to see the correspondents go. But I won't, because the online tsunami of misinformation, dirty tricks and invective that inevitably will replace them will overwhelm and confuse the national discourse, making it far less civil in the bargain.

For all that was wrong with the MSM - and there was a lot - their usually constructive contribution to the political process will be sorely missed in the frighteningly fractious free-for-all that likely lies ahead.