05/11/2007 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How the Mainstream Media Got Off-Track

Another day, another MSM-new media showdown. Am I wrong, but is this getting old? The attacks are repetitive, the defenses (and defensiveness) tiresome. If I read one more blogger attack on Joe Klein, and then the Klein response, and then the counterattack, and then the counter-response, I'm gonna run screaming from my laptop. Still, these dustups keep happening, and they do reveal something about the way the media conversation is changing.

I am an old media person by training. But I'm fed up with the old media too in a lot of ways. Frankly, a lot of what Glenn Greenwald (for example - he's just one of a chorus) says about the MSM makes sense. He is a polemicist, and thus overreaches at times. But he's got his finger on something that MSM types would be wise to listen to, especially after the big media failures of the past few years.

Most in the media establishment were slow to pick up on the biggest story of the 2000s, the radical nature of the Bush administration. The MSM has now begun to catch on, thanks to Iraq, to the information now being knocked loose by Congressional investigators, and to the sheer political dead weight of all those months President Bush has polled in the low 30s.

I think the basic lesson to be learned here is, sometimes profound political changes occur. And institutions don't recognize the profundity of the change until way after it's already occurred. Sometimes they never recognize it.

The standard political reporter's trope through the 1980s and 1990s was the failures and/or ineptitude of the Democratic Party, its fracturing, shrinking base, its lack of talented politicians (with the exception of the personally flawed Bill Clinton). At the time, this made a lot of sense. Tom Edsall wrote an excellent book about this in the 1980s. Klein had an insightful take on Clintonian politics and policy. The standard view of the Republican Party, meanwhile, was that it was vicious, but competent - and for demographic reasons, probably the future.

This basic outlook was both echoed and amplified by the emergent conservative media - Fox News, Limbaugh, Drudge - whose principal purpose wasn't dispassionate analysis, but to harsh on the Democrats and build up the Republicans.

As a result, the media has been endlessly rerunning the 1988 presidential race in its head - and ours. That campaign was a cartoon, devoid of any serious discussion of where the country was going. The elder George Bush, once a reasonable, temperamentally conservative man, took on the aspect of a superpatriot, visiting a flag factory and repeatedly denouncing the hapless Michael Dukakis as "out of the mainstream."

But things change, remember? The traditional Democratic Party bugaboos - its ossified interest group politics, its perpetual confusion over national defense and the U.S. role in the world - are still there, but they are dwarfed by the scale of the political changes effected by the current White House. At the same time, the six-year Republican grip on the presidency and Congress made the postwar MSM take on politics - roughly, that "both sides should stop posturing, set aside their differences, and compromise for the good of the American people" (i.e., Broder's main schtick) - unworkable, laughable. There could be no decent compromise achieved with someone who held all the cards and wasn't interested in meeting you halfway. And still is not, apparently.

Now, the public has decisively rejected the Bush presidency and assigned the Democrats to do something about it. Suddenly, the Democrats have this new role thrust upon them: the party of probity and competence - i.e., the mainstream (whatever that is!). Can they actually do this? Good question!

One senses this is just the beginning, that there are more changes rumbling under the political landscape we can't yet glimpse. Yet 1988-style trashing of Democratic political incompetence is still a common MSM approach. This is partly out of memory and habit, partly out of misguided Drudge-worship, partly because the Republicans still have a much more effective media message machine than Democrats. But it's out of tune with reality.

One postscript: I'd suggest that the debate about David Broder is in large part people talking past each other. Broder is deservedly revered for his reporting - his willingness to go knock on doors in swing districts and chat people up for hours. I've done that from time to time, far, far less than Broder. It's hard. More of us should do it, bloggers included.

However, Broder isn't primarily a reporter anymore, but a pundit, and for whatever reason his once-sensible punditry has grown increasingly blinkered. I'd suggest the deeper problem here is not flawed reporting - we should acknowledge that the MSM still (sometimes) does reporting right - but the rise of punditry itself, a form of expression that has done far more to degrade the public discourse than blogging.