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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Let if flow II

I will now continue with the second part of the two-part commentary I began last week. What? You didn’t know that last’s week column was the first in a two-part series? Well, join the club. I didn’t even know it, and I’m the one writing these darn things. Work with me here. I’m flying by the seat of my pants.

Events have conspired to provide a natural segue from the topic of American campaign finance reform and its implications for free speech. My main point—and I welcome the opportunity to repeat and clarify it—was that I believe that unfettered free speech is the best policy, even in spite of the fact that people (and organizations) that have a lot of money will, realistically, have a bigger platform from which to speak from. I firmly believe that the marketplace of ideas, with all ideas and opinions competing against each other for all to see and judge, will ultimately sort things out. And that leads naturally enough to the question of the marketplace for information in general. Are we actually seeing the beginning of the end of the “old media”?

I got excited this past week because a political furor finally erupted over something about which I can modestly claim to be something of an expert. CBS News did a report, the thrust of which was that George W. Bush belonged to a powerful political family that got him out of service in Vietnam by getting him into the “champagne brigade” of the state National Guard and that his participation in the Guard was, shall we say, rather flexible. Now there were two remarkable things about this report. One was that CBS thought this was “news.” I think everybody had figured out a long time ago that there’s a reason that the president doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about that part of his life. The other remarkable thing was that CBS partly based its reporting on documents purported to be authored by Bush’s commanding officer at the time, a man who has been dead for 20 years. The “new media” immediately jumped all over these memos. (“New media” here is pretty much defined as “right-leaning to right-wing media.”) Bloggers, AM radio and Fox News quickly came to a conclusion that I am in a position to back up. You see, I have a history in the printing trade that encompasses “hot type” (melting lead to make words), “cold type” (using ink to make words) and “computers” (playing Minesweeper while things print out). I was in the printing industry during the birth of computerized publishing, and I even had some chats with the developers of Microsoft Word for Windows when Bill Gates decided that he wanted Word to be something more than a mere word processing program and to have a certain level of desktop publishing capability. This past week, it came home to me how much the computer revolution has raised the consciousness of people in all walks of life in terms of understanding some of the finer points of professional typography. My eyes welled with tears, as I listened to political pundits on cable news channels discussing things like proportional fonts, superscripts, and the default settings in Microsoft Word. We’ve definitely come a long way since the days when typewriters didn’t even have a key for the number 1 because people just used a lower-case L instead.

So, yes, the documents, as far as I can tell anyway, seem to have been produced with Word. Of course, this controversy is great for Bush because it distracts from the question of his National Guard service. And even if it didn’t, the National Guard story is still good for Bush because as long as the media are focusing on that, they are spending less time covering the deteriorating situation in Iraq. And the only reason that the “old media” are spending so much time on the National Guard story anyway is that they are trying make up for all the time they spent on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which they didn’t really want to cover anyway but were “forced” to because of, that’s right, the “new media.” Yes, we are definitely well served by the major mainstream American media.

Politics aside, the astounding thing about the CBS forged document flap is how it puts the lie to the defense that has always been made about the quality of news from the establishment media vis-à-vis internet blogs and certain cable TV outlets. Major television network news organizations have higher standards of reporting, fact checking and editing, we are told. The “new media” have political axes to grind and spread information too fast for it to be properly vetted. Stunningly, Dan Rather has single-handedly made those arguments a joke.

Now, before proponents of the “new media” get too drunk on champagne at their victory party, a few things should be noted. Firstly, just because the documents are obvious forgeries doesn’t mean the thrust of CBS’s story is wrong. But, as noted above, nobody cares anyway. Check the latest election polls. But we have absolutely no reason to believe anything CBS News says about anything as long as Rather, looking eerily like Richard Nixon, sits there on his broadcasts stone-faced and defending his reporting, without supporting evidence, in the face of all the criticism. Secondly, both the “old media” and the “new media” are more diverse than some commentators would have us believe. People who want to believe the memos are genuine can find left-wing blogs that will offer explanations of how they could have been produced three decades ago on IBM Selectric typewriters. (They’d be better off arguing that the colonel somehow got hold of a very advance beta copy of WordStar.) And ABC News (of the “old media”) has joined Fox News and the blogs in being fairly aggressive at questioning its competitor’s evidence. (You see, there was a reason that, in my ranking of the three major network news broadcasts) last November, ABC came in first and CBS came in last.) But the bottom line in all of this is that we are better off with more sources of information than fewer. We don’t need self-appointed gatekeepers to decide what’s important enough for us to hear during nightly 30-minute broadcasts.

The main arguments against the “new media” are as follows: 1) they are biased, they advocate for one side or another on every political question, and 2) people will not get a balanced view of the world because they will just seek out information that reinforces the beliefs they already hold. Well, I’ve got news for everybody. The “old media” have always had points of view too. And people have always been seeking out information that reinforces their beliefs, even when there weren’t so many places to look. (I recall very well, back in the days when there were only three TV channels and one daily newspaper available to my family, my father always sought out the conservative columnists on the editorial page and ignored the others.) Now, I actually went to journalism school years ago in another life, and I am well aware of the American journalist credo of objectivity and neutrality. I have also spent a few years of my life in Europe reading newspapers that are openly affiliated with various political parties. The thing is that every human being has a point of view and that point of view comes into play when editors makes judgments about which stories to air and what prominence to give them. Choosing which reports to air has much more influence on things than what the reports actually say. Personally, I would like to know more about the mindset of the people making those decisions, so I can evaluate the reporting better. And a funny thing happens in an open marketplace, even in Europe. If your competitors are all over a big story, you aren’t simply going to ignore just because it is inconvenient for the politicians you support. Even the partisan press has to have a minimum standard of coverage to be taken seriously.

In an environment where news reporting is colored by an agenda, a person definitely has to find multiple sources to get the full story. But this has always been true. And it has always been hard in modern America to get multiple sources because the TV networks have tended to follow each other and newspapers have tended use the same wire service reports. For a long time, our information has been provided by a frighteningly small pool of people. Now that technology has provided lots more sources, I think we are better off. It puts more of a burden on the individual to shop wisely for information and evaluate it critically, but that’s not a bad thing.

Heck, with enough sources of information out there, we might even be able to find news about something other than what John Kerry and George W. Bush were doing (or not doing) 30 years ago.

-S.L., 16 September 2004

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