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The Therapy Sessions
Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Media Meltdown

Glenn Reynolds at Tech Central Station:
And even after Kerry, the quality of the coverage was poor, often substituting hand-waving for facts. Last provides plenty of examples, but this piece by Jim Boyd of the Star-Tribune, attacking two bloggers from Power Line does an especially good job of capturing the tone -- lots of complaints about "smears," but few facts. The two bloggers, John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson, replied:

"We wrote that the Kerry campaign has retracted Kerry's oft-told tale of being in Cambodia on Christmas 1968. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that there is no record of John Kerry being in Cambodia in December 1968, or at any other time. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that Kerry's commanding officers have denied that he was ever sent into Cambodia. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that not a single crewman who ever served with Kerry has supported Kerry's claim to have been in Cambodia, and several crewmen have denied that their boat was ever in Cambodia. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that there is no record of Swift boats being used for clandestine missions as claimed by Kerry. Boyd did not dispute this. We wrote that Swift boats were unsuited for such secret missions, given their large size and noise. Boyd did not dispute this.

"Gosh, for fraudulent smear artists, we seem to be doing pretty well.

Why did Hinderaker and Johnson do so well? Perhaps because they have actual skills...

...Or as Hinderaker himself wrote:

"A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons, because they lack the specialized training and experience necessary for that field. But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can't? Nothing. Generally speaking, they don't know any more about primary data and raw sources of information than we do-- often less. Their general knowledge is often inadequate. Their superior resources should allow them to carry out investigations far beyond what we amateurs can do. But the reality is that the mainstream media rarely use those resources. Too many journalists are bored, biased and lazy.

When I was a young English major (It's true! It's true!), I was amazed at how uninformed about current events my peers were. Several were excellent students with detailed knowledge of poetry. Many were posers - these were the future coffeeshop Chomskys - eager to be seen as intellectual gods but never holding themselves to any standards in the pursuit of truth. Many were partiers - attempting to see how a few bong hits would give insight into Spencer. Just about everyone (including myself) was liberal.

I was practically the only one who had a career in mind (Print journalism! The foolishness of youth!), and I was looked down on because of it. I was told that in journalism you have no freedom of expression - you retyped press releases and gave them your own byline, you had to follow the rules of journalism (blah, blah), you had to write your editors wanted...

The ironic thing is that I became a scientist (praise the Lord!), and many of peers ended up in journalism. I guess, after a while, many of my English major friends got tired of being known only as the guy who could fix the latte machine.

The frightening thing about the print media is that anyone with basic skills can write. While the skills are easily learned - stringing sentences together, asking questions, meeting deadlines - the passion is not. The unbiased quest for the truth, the drive to pelt a clueless person with an uncomfortable questions, the tenacity that refuses to let someone wriggle away with a canned recititation of verbal flatulence - these are things that are found in scientists. They are not taught in English programs, where the emphasis is on the beauty and complexity of rhetoric, and there is no such thing as absolute truth.

Journalism is drawing from a bad pool.

To make matters worse, the news industry suffers from the worst kind of affirmative action. The desire to make the newsroom "look like America" has had a predictable effect on quality and bias. (But that is another story. )

The usefulness of blogs is that they have taken newsmaking out of the hands of the established media and put it in the hands of regular people. Stories that the media wishes to avoid (Kerry in Cambodia, Jayson Blair, overwhelming media bias, Trent Lott, Kerry's Senate record) can't simply be brushed away by disinterested journalists. Blogs keep these stories alive.

Reynolds is right in pointing out what this means:
But while the media's willingness to side with Kerry has been striking, it's also like the proverbial thirteenth chime of the clock -- not only wrong itself, but calling into question everything that came before. The loss of credibility that has come with that, coupled with the press's poor performance on all sorts of topics (don't these people know how to use Google? don't they realize that we do?) will be a long-lasting blow.

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