Monday, May 16, 2005

Finding Fault

Sorry for the quiet period. I was sick over the weekend, and really wasn't up to any deep thinking (teasing Professor Bainbridge doesn't count!). So I sort of missed the whole Newsweek/riots in the Arab world fiasco. Yeah, sorry 'bout that. The Moderate Voice has the most comprehensive round-up you'll need.

For now, I just want to second a point Kevin Drum brought up in relation to the reaction the conservative blogosphere in general, and Instapundit in particular, have had to the deal.
I warned earlier that if Americans concluded that the press was on the other side, the consequences would be dire....I'm a big fan of freedom of the press. I think it's too bad that the journalistic profession is ruining things for everybody through the hubris, irresponsibility, sloppiness, and outright agenda-driven bias of its practitioners.

Drum has several important points to make (the most cutting: "As near as I can tell, the Pentagon has demonstrated more genuine outrage over this incident than they did over months and months of disclosures of similar (and worse) actions at Abu Ghraib. It's revolting."). However, the one I want to make on my own is the whole business of the press taking sides.

I am a long-time skeptic of the supposed "liberal media bias" (see here for loads and loads of detail). It's been my experience that everybody thinks the media is biased against them, and has dozens of horror stories to "prove" it. I rather subscribe to the "storyline" or "narrative" belief on bias, which is that the media will adapt a particular narrative in which to view certain parties, and will shoehorn events to fit the narrative no matter how much it distorts the facts. So Republicans are seen as cold, evil, money-grubbing bastards, even when it's wrong. But they also get the benefit of being tough-minded defense hawks and fiscal disciplinarians, even when that's wrong. Democrats have the same sort of thing: they're both bleeding heart dovish anti-Americans, and kind-hearted saviors of the poor. Since each side thinks the good things about them are just true, they only focus on the (wrong) bad coverage. Everybody screams, and nobody's happy.

So basically, while I'm about to engage in a defense of the media, don't think for a moment that I like them. I don't. I think they do an overall crappy job, and give me The New Republic and National Review over them any day of the week.

However, Reynolds' quote seriously disturbs me. As Drum notes, it comes perilously close to "explaining" American's anemic support for a free press (43% say it has "too much freedom"). Say what you will about media bias, but even if you don't buy my explanation I think we can all agree that a "regulated" (read: censored) press would be a solution that is infinitely worse than the problem. The undercurrent, that the media is "against us," implies that what they should be is "for us." Now, I'm sure that Reynolds would disagree. He'd say the press should simply be neutral, and that since America is in the right in this conflict, that means that, all in all, they should end up supporting us most of the time. The problem is, while I think America is right on the overall message, the day-to-day problems we...have...been...screwing up. The Right Wing just cannot get past this. We've made mistakes in this endeavor. The message is not a story anymore, and it shouldn't be, either. We know we're Iraq to make it a democracy (even if that was a nice bit of post hoc justification by the Bush administration). What exactly does Reynolds want? Front page stories in the NYT, "Experts Say: Democracy Still a Good Thing"? That won't sell papers for very long, because it isn't news. However, maybe if we can cut throw the stagnant inertia that affects any bureaucratic organization (and a vigilant press is one way to do it), then we can rectify the errors and win this war.

Reynolds sees papers covering our military's mistakes and sees an entity that wants us to fail. I see the same thing and see a media that wants us to succeed. I know that is why I'm constantly critiquing the Bush administration. The President can hear what a wonderful job he is doing from any of the innumerable sycophants he's surrounded himself with, but that won't win us any wars. It's only by pointing out mistakes that you can fix them, and it's only by fixing mistakes that you can succeed in anything. And if we're a bit more vociferous in our criticisms that Reynolds would like? Well, perhaps that's because this administration has been unusually inapt at responding to criticisms laid out through the normal channels.


N.S.T said...

In this specific case the reporter is Mike Isikoff, the same guy who blew the lid on the Lewinsky scandal in NEWSWEEK way back when, and so I don't think media bias applies.

Mark said...

Goldberg in the NRO "corner" thinks the case against Newsweek bias is weak. "growing squishy" was his remark.

I do have to say, that your ideas on media bias (fitting into stories) is a good one. Although perhaps given the overwhelming left leaning personal bias of most of the media and the echo chamber effect might make them hit harder against the right as well.

As for the freedom of the press issues, my crystal ball puts that crises a ways off. See this (from a week or so ago).