In an article titled “Our American Pravda,” Ron Unz, a businessman, writer, and publisher of The American Conservative, argues that there is good reason to be alarmed by the failures of the American media.
Such a revolutionary sentiment is enough to make a mainstream media employee shudder. One of those most emphatically shuddering is Conor Friedersdorf, whose “Why Does the American Media Get Big Stories Wrong?” is a reply to Unz. It appears in The Atlantic’s on-line edition. Friedersdorf doesn’t think much of Unz’s article (while admitting the occasional minor faux pas on the part of the media. Can’t win ‘em all), but his piece is at least as off the mark as he makes Unz’s out to be.
Friedersdorf’s points, summarized as succinctly as possible, follow with commentary.
“The metaphor Unz chose in his headline provokes more than it distills.”
Unfortunately, Friedersdorf is so convinced the media’s groupthink accurately represents facts that he can’t see how utterly apt Unz’s title is. Friedersdorf advances the following “theories and observations” in attempting to mitigate or explain away Unz’s points:
1) Excessive deference to government officials is one factor that causes the news media to get important stories wrong, especially in the realms of national security, law enforcement, and public safety.
This is risible. Does Friedersdorf really expect anyone to believe that the national media that all but threw rocks at George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan was exhibiting “excessive deference”? It may just be one of those silly co-incidences, but “excessive deference” seems to be cyclical in nature. It appears whenever Democrats are in power – Compare and contrast the coverage of the Valerie Plame scandal (body count, zero, for those keeping score), with the coverage of Benghazi. Alternatively, consider l’affaire Plame (body count zero), with the protracted somnolence – it never rose to the level of reporting – produced by the DOJ’s Fast ‘n’ Furious embarrassment. At last count, over two hundred people lost their lives as a result of Fast ‘n’ Furious, one of them being United States Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Ho-hum. Got something snarky about the Tea Party?
2) Because of business imperatives and dubious professional norms, lots of relatively well-paid journalists duplicate one another’s work.
I suppose it’s too much to ask those in charge of field reporters to deploy their assets in a rational manner, so we’ll just drop it in favor of asking about the remarkable ideological conformity that is the hallmark of institutions ostensibly in competition with each other.
3) Lots of Americans get their news from television, a terrible medium for obtaining good information.
Is that why the three major networks act like … dare I say it? … Pravda? Perhaps a meditation on why television is a “terrible medium for obtaining good information” is in order. Will Mr. Friedersdorf attempt it, say, by dissecting CNN? The major metropolitan newspapers are ideological clones as well. Why is that?
4) American society undervalues watchdog journalism.
Friedersdorf’s example to support this claim, the tardiness of the L. A. Times in covering municipal corruption in Bell, undercuts his own point. The story and created a firestorm of public outrage … when it finally ran. How then, can Friedersdorf argue the public “undervalues” watchdog journalism?
The public doesn’t get watchdog journalism while, in another silly coincidence I’m sure, liberals, Democrats, or any of their constituents are running the show. The old saw about “discomfiting the comfortable” somehow loses its teeth.
Friedersdorf’s next point, five, is difficult to reduce to a sentence, but it goes something like this: Unz complains that the press often fails to cover business malfeasance, and cites the cases of Enron and Bernie Madoff. Friedersdorf counters with, “journalists have a lot more access to government officials and public information than to goings-on in most private enterprises. The typical journalist also understands the worlds of politics, policy, and government better than business or finance.” While it cannot be denied that journalists are generally ignorant of business or finance, Friedersdorf fails to show how this differs from their knowledge of any other subject they attempt to cover. Worse, journalists seem to be uninterested or too lazy in establishing the most basic facts in their stories. The grotesque howlers that are credulously “reported” in any story about the Second Amendment are a case in point. In what must be one of the most curious defenses ever offered for the media not doing it’s job, Friedersdorf states, “it is unclear, at least to me, that saving wealthy New Yorkers from unscrupulous hedge-fund managers is something media outlets ought to develop a capacity to do better, even having failed. No one had a better incentive to detect the risks of investing with Madoff than his investors. If they couldn’t succeed in doing so, why would journalists be expected to do better?” Maybe because they’re journalists and that’s supposed to be their job? Bernie Madoff’s victims were not restricted to “wealthy New Yorkers,” and his depredations had much greater effects than merely depriving Chase Hepperdink Astor-Vandallingham IV an eagerly anticipated weekend in Cap d’Antibes. Not all Enron investors were billionaires.
6) Journalistic outlets respond to media criticism.
I suppose derision is a “response.”
Friedersdorf complains that most media criticism comes from “the conservative movement” and isn’t very good, citing complaints about media coverage of Iraq. One complaint he fails to acknowledge is that media coverage of Iraq was indistinguishable from Democrats’ criticism of the war. After a brief cæsura of the relentless criticism of everything American and conservative after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the media soon returned to its reflexive disparagement of George Bush and a new target, his prosecution of the war.
But while we’re examining Iraq, let’s look at the war in 1990. Eason Jordan, then President of CNN, later admitted that CNN knowingly broadcast enemy propaganda so … are you ready? … they could maintain their access to more enemy propaganda.
Do conservatives want relentless good news? No. But something resembling even-handedness would be nice. When Saddam Hussein and his henchmen got more sympathetic press than the American government, it should have been obvious something was wrong. The contumely heaped on the Bush 41 Administration was no doubt another of those silly coincidences that seem to conspire somehow to besmirch the otherwise blameless media.
Friedersdorf also mocks conservatives for finding media bias in coverage of conservative icons who apparently are not worthy of unbiased reporting, mentioning Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann by name. Omitted is any mention of the unbiased AP assignment of eleven reporters to fact check Sarah Palin’s autobiography. Perhaps that caused the paucity of personnel available to cover Fast ‘n’ Furious. Oh, those pesky, silly coincidences kept another story from ever reaching the American public.
Mr. Friedersdorf, can you point to mainstream media stories obsessing over the howlers in the incumbent President’s autobiographies? Can you point to criticism of a liberal or Democrat that doesn’t come from the left?
7) No one is in charge here. This is where the Pravda metaphor fails.
I’ll give Friedersdorf half a point here, because no one, in fact, is in charge. No one needs to be, which is what costs him the other half point. Not that some haven’t tried. When Ezra Klein selflessly stepped up to the plate and founded the JournoList to enable the press to coordinate its coverage of the Obama Administration, the resulting unanimity of “reporting” is doubtless just a silly … there’s that word again.
How coincidental of you, Mr. Friedersdorf. How silly.
Finally, can Friedersdorf name one prominent conservative who has not been a target of mainstream media contempt, abuse, or ridicule?