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The Tentacle


January 11, 2006

Journalism in 2005

Kevin E. Dayhoff

When one thinks of the mainstream media in 2005, the consistent theme is that of a reluctant, haughty and often pretentious dinosaur with its out-of-touch editorial boards. One can only hope 2006 is better.

Misleading us, sometimes, but fortunately not often, by outright mistruths, although that certainly happens; but mostly by agenda driven, selective outrage and quotation, guilt by association, argumentation by flawed logic or analogy, enemy imaging or outright “if it doesn’t fit, it must omit.”

Internet writers are not always going to get it right either. At least, the credible ones are willing to immediately correct their mistakes and be accessible for a dialogue.

The main stream media seems reluctant to understand that their status as the only megaphone in town is in jeopardy and their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their biased reporting – and mistakes – is not helpful.

No thinking promoter of democracy wants to see the demise of newspapers in general, or any specific newspaper in particular. What is wanted is for the main stream media to get off its high hobby horse and label their articles as “commentary” when a reporter opines, and to present some balance in their news reporting.

The Internet runs every second of every day of the year. It has introduced an era of accountability and quality control for which the main stream media has reacted with irritation and arrogance.

The reality test is that if such balance was not needed in political coverage – the Internet media would not exist. It simply would not be sustainable. Considering the precipitous drop in major newspaper circulation and advertising revenue, you answer the questions about sustainability.

Speaking of Internet media, The Tentacle is not a blog. It is rather the product of a huge amount of hard work on the part of Tentacle editor and publisher John Ashbury, to provide an Internet-based column format for all points of view – both conservative and liberal.

One of the more definitive works on the power of Internet media to affect change is found in the July 2005 edition of Governing magazine. In a lengthy piece that is highly readable, Christopher Swope’s cover story on the marriage of politics and technology, entitled “Instant Influence,” describes how in the last year or so “a new generation of web scribes is shaking up state capitol politics.”

Conventional wisdom understands the world of Internet media as a great exercise in grass roots participatory democracy. The main stream media is certainly not adjusting well to the quickly changing face of news dissemination. Indeed, apparently anger is the operative word and war of rhetoric only heated up in 2005.

Out on the left coast, a war of words has erupted between the Los Angeles Times and an Internet writer with a web site called Patterico. It’s ugly. Patterico recently wrote an 11,000-word dissection of the number of instances in which incorrect information, bias and agenda-driven news appeared in the paper in 2005. LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik completely lost it and responded by calling Patterico a “dishonest, totalitarian Stalinist apparatchik.”

Ay, caramba; this really isn’t helpful. The personal attacks are not welcome in these discussions.

Popular columnist Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel recently wrote:

“Schadenfreude – pleasure in others' misfortune – has become the new barbarity on an island called Blog. When someone trips, whether Dan Rather or Eason Jordan or Judith Miller, bloggers are the bloodthirsty masses slavering for a public flogging. Incivility is their weapon and humanity their victim… I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant people out there… and other journalists who also happen to blog. Again, they know who they are. But we should beware and resist the rest of the ego-gratifying rabble who contribute only snark, sass and destruction. We can't silence them, but for civilization's sake – and the integrity of information by which we all live or die – we can and should ignore them.”

To a certain extent, she is right. Not all potatoes can swim and bloggers who are engaged in the trade to promote the politics of personal destruction ought to be ignored.

Just as there are good and bad examples of mainstream newspapers – there are good and bad examples in the Internet media world.

The bottom line is that Ms. Parker’s opinion is to be respected and properly used as a springboard for intelligent discussion and dialogue. Just as the market is engaged in a great sorting out of mainstream newspapers – the same forces will promote accountability in the Internet media.

Media and political criticism is always done at one’s own risk, but someone needs to stand up for responsible journalism and – at the present – that “someone” has manifested itself in Internet journalism.

Most consumers of the news have no problem with a periodical that identifies itself as having a particular bias – as did many newspapers until the mid-1900s. The rub is when a particular newspaper or editorial board presents itself as an accurate and unbiased purveyor of the news and it is proven repeatedly that they are not.

In 2005, it was not the matter of a bad day here and there. It was a horrible year. And 2006 is certainly not shaping up to look any better.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. As journalists, we can’t just keep eating our own in a gotcha death match. No responsible actor in this drama wants anyone to lose their job. What is wanted is a course correction. This course correction needs to be heartfelt. Throwing a particular journalist under a bus to atone for all the collective sins of an organization is disturbing and regrettable and does nothing to re-establish confidence in the judgment of main stream media’s decision makers.

We need to talk about issues. It’s about maintaining a public trust. We have a public trust to promote a positive dialogue about the issues. The closer we get to the truth, the better it is for everyone we serve as journalists.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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