Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy advisor to St. Ronnie the Reagan and a Treasury official under the First Awful Bush, offers up, in two emails printed at Steve Benen’s excellent blog for the Washington Monthly, Political Animal, offers what I believe to be an accurate critique of how the political media has failed us over the past decade plus.
These were included separately as parts of longer Benen posts and, to be fair, you should go read everything there (use the link above and scroll down); I post them here as one long item for convenience.
Read it and weep.
I believe that political parties should do penance for their mistakes and just losing power is not enough. Part of that involves understanding why those mistakes were made and how to prevent them from happening again. Republicans, however, have done no penance. They just pretend that they did nothing wrong. But until they do penance they don’t deserve any credibility and should be ignored until they do. That’s what my attacks on Bush are all about. I want Republicans to admit they were wrong about him, accept blame for his mistakes, and take some meaningful action to keep them from happening again. Bush should be treated as a pariah, as Richard Nixon was for many years until he rebuilt his credibility by more or less coming clean about Watergate with David Frost and writing a number of thoughtful books.
One reason this isn’t happening is because the media don’t treat Republicans as if they are discredited. On the contrary, they often seem to be treated as if they have more credibility than the administration. Just look at the silly issue of death panels. The media should have laughed it out the window, ridiculed it or at least ignored it once it was determined that there was no basis to the charge. Instead, those making the most outlandish charges are treated with deference and respect, while those that actually have credibility on the subject are treated as equals at best and often with deep skepticism, as if they are the ones with an ax to grind.
I am truly baffled by this situation, as I’m sure you are.
Like I said, I don’t know why the media is so unwilling to exercise editorial judgment any more, but here are some thoughts.
The expansion of television news from the traditional 30 minutes per night on just three networks to 24 hours a day on several cable channels. The talking head format fit nicely into segments between advertising breaks and it just caught on. But as time went by I think that knowledgeable, responsible commentators got tired of the format, decided it was a very poor way of getting their points across, and mostly stopped doing it. Also, scholars will tend to agree with each other too often to make good television. So they were replaced by political hacks who know that their only job is to get the talking points of the day across and do everything possible to discredit their opponent. This has led to a deterioration in discourse that benefits those most willing to be outrageous. At present this benefits the right because they are out of power and need not take responsibility for actions by the administration. But I don’t think it inherently benefits the right. It’s a cyclical thing.
The rise of Fox News is very important. I do believe that from the 1950s through the 1990s there was a liberal bias in the media. Rupert Murdoch, to his credit, recognized that this created an opportunity for a network catering to conservatives. He was very clever about introducing it with the whole ‘fair and balanced’ thing, but now there is no balance at all. The Fox News channel is a pure conservative/Republican network that does not pretend to be anything else. Personally, I have no problem with that. The problem is that the rest of the media is no longer liberal. It has moved to the center across the board. This has created an imbalance that requires a Fox-like network that is as liberal as Fox is conservative. MSNBC seems to be trying to fill this role, but very half-heartedly for reasons I am unclear about.
The rise of talk radio was the foundation. Rush Limbaugh deserves his millions and millions of dollars for figuring out that the abolition of the fairness doctrine created an opportunity for opinionated radio. And he was fortunate that at the moment he figured this out AM radio was dying. Its sound quality was poor and it couldn’t compete with FM in broadcasting music. But it was perfect for talking. It also filled an important gap in terms of catering to conservatives who had long been ignored by the mainstream media. The problem is that people like Rush live in a cocoon where the only people they hear from are those who think they are gods. As time has gone by, these guys have gone from just representing their own opinions to representing the conservative movement to representing the Republican Party to thinking they actually speak for the American people as a whole. Power and vanity have led them to lose touch with reality
The Internet completed the circle and provided for complete detachment of conservatives from the mainstream media. They could now get 100% of their news filtered through a conservative lens. They no longer had to confront any facts they deemed inconvenient or without a ready-made response that either refuted them or interpreted them in a way conservatives could rationalize. The result is that many conservatives live in a cocoon as well, completely insulated from any facts or opinions that are counter to their worldview. The left doesn’t really have this. The reason I think gets back to liberal bias. Liberals have long been content with the mainstream media because it did largely reflect their values. It doesn’t any more but liberals still treat the mainstream media as if it does. Thus as the mainstream media has declined, liberals have lost their primary sources of news and commentary and have not replaced them with those that are explicitly liberal in the same way that the right has created a fully-formed alternative media.
Finally, the decline of the mainstream media because of the Internet and other economic forces has been critical to its loss of influence and standing. It no longer has the resources to pay reporters to look into things deeply and write about issues authoritatively. Reporters even at the best newspapers often seem like glorified bloggers who get their basic facts from the Internet instead of their own research, substitute speed for thoroughness and accuracy, and have no time to become experts on the subjects they cover because they are covering the waterfront. And since television news has always depended upon newspapers as their basic sources of material, the decline of newspaper reporting led inevitably to a decline in television reporting. All this has created a death spiral for the mainstream media that, as I said, liberals still largely depend on to represent their viewpoint.
I don’t think the genie can be put back in the bottle. The mainstream media will continue to decline and insofar as liberals depend upon it they will more and more lose out in competition with conservatives. I think they need to abandon the mainstream media and create their own alternative media just as conservatives have done. That will help redress the imbalance that now exists in the media which benefits conservatives.
You may, as I do, disagree with some of the points he makes, but it’s difficult not to accept the basic truth of what he has laid out. Commenter Pat O’Neill makes a similar point about the internet’s effect on all this in response to an earlier post here.
Meanwhile, Benen’s current (as of the posting) comments on his site re: who exactly is in charge of health care reform is well worth reading as well.