Mark Halperin was on KQED tonight; I was listening on the shuttle home. He said something to the effect that "new media" (blogs, cable news, and talk radio) are partly responsible for coarsening the nation's political debate. According to him, new media make the debate more extreme, more polarizing, and more oriented towards pushing a point of view rather than informing the public. Some outrageous "freak show" allegation pops up on Drudge, makes its way onto local news, then cable news, and finally onto major news outlets including the New York Times.
When someone asked him a followup question about whether the "old media" (i.e., people like Halperin's employer ABC News) are therefore somehow responsible as well, his reply was basically:
- Yes, sure; however--
- the "new media" should elevate its standards, and
- the old media are just "giving the people what they want" --- "I didn't get into this business to write about Brangelina, but we need to survive economically".
The latter two arguments fill me with fury. They are misleading in at least two ways.
First, "new media" is a misleading level of abstraction that lumps together many wildly different parts of a huge and decentralized system. There's a world of difference between Drudge and, say, Brad DeLong, and yet the old media pay more attention to Drudge. There will always be sources of bad information in society --- social networks for promulgating rumor and superstition existed long before the Internet did, and they will always exist. The salient fact is not the existence of Drudge; it's the selection of Drudge from an essentially unlimited set of choices. Blaming the "new media" for the offal that gets promoted to the front page is rather like blaming the continent of Africa for the fact that you've elected to eat elephant shit for breakfast.
Second, the problem with the news media is not that they do stories on "Brangelina". Nobody cares that celebrity news fluff gets a few column-inches here or a few screen-minutes there. The relevant choice is not between covering "Brangelina" and covering politics; the relevant choice is between shallow, misleading coverage of important issues, and substantial coverage of important issues. Or between a view of "objectivity" where you refuse to speak the plain truth simply because some powerful person objects to your speaking the truth, and a view of objectivity where reporters arrive at independent conclusions about the truth and (gasp) state what they conclude to be true.
These two problems with Halperin's arguments are so obvious that I almost can't believe he's speaking in good faith. If Halperin's not being disingenuous, then he's either deluded or remarkably stupid. And he's the ABC News Political Director. Hence my fury.
Finally, let's back up and look at the bigger picture. If the "old media" are so easily subverted by a gossip-monger like Drudge, and so in thrall to the needs of advertisers who want to draw eyeballs via entertainment rather than hard news, that seems like a fundamental, structural, endogenous flaw with the old media.
Halperin's argument basically amounts to this: If only the entire world, including our whole audience and all of our potential sources, changed for the better, then we could publish good news. That's a pretty weak defense.
Maybe it's fundamentally a bad idea to have newspapers and television shows, supported directly by advertising, report the news. Newspapers and television news bundle many disparate forms of labor. A newspaper (a) pays reporters to investigate stories; (b) pays editors to aggregate and filter articles; (c) pays columnists and analysts to comment on the news; (d) pays marketing people to sell advertising.
It has historically been efficient to perform these functions under one roof. However, this may be an artifact of technology. A fat bundle of newsprint is more efficient to produce and distribute than a hundred articles on individual pieces of paper, so you have to package a lot of different things in one bundle. Only a few half-hour news shows can fit on the available broadcast spectrum, so you'd better tailor the whole show to the lowest common denominator to draw eyeballs.
It's far from clear that the various functions of "old media" news should be performed under the same roof today. Wire services like Reuters, AP, and AFP do more hard news-gathering than any newspaper. Online tracking systems (Technorati, Bloglines, etc.) and even individuals (Atrios, etc.) aggregate more stories in more ways than any newspaper. Blogs generate more commentary (and, at their best, higher-quality commentary) than any newspaper. Google's AdSense (and its competitors) sell ads more efficiently than any newspaper.
I leave the task of connecting the foregoing dots to the reader.