The current brouhaha over the two known altered images by Adnan Hajj, his firing and removal of his pictures by Reuters, and the blogosphere’s extra scrutiny of images posted by photographers in the Middle East conflicts are the big news stories of the day. The mainstream media are telling us that they have high standards for their journalism, but evidence mounts daily that just isn’t the case.
I noticed today and yesterday, while discussing this issue with co-workers, that those who followed the liberal media organizations exclusively didn’t know about the Hajj photo manipulations. They were not ignorant of current events, but their particular news sources didn’t feel this was a big enough story to bring it to their readers’ attention. This brought to mind a post The Pirate King, my lovely and talented wife, wrote over a year ago.
Thoughts on the media’s Style Divide
Much has been said and written lately about the media shakeup that seems to have occurred in the early 2000s–Dan Rather’s fall from grace, the rise of the blogosphere, the supposed obsolescent qualities of the mainstream media. And when I say much, I mean MUCH. Both the evening news and the bloggers seem obsessed with this Brave New Media World being created before their eyes, and they discuss it in virtual reams of blinding detail. One thing I haven’t seen very much of, however, is articles considering the damaging practical upshot of a new, fragmented media.
Back in the days where big media held supreme sway, Americans were given a baseline of network and AP news from which to draw their ideas. They didn’t necessarily believe all the same things about what they watched or read, but the point is, they all watched or read the same news. The Big Three networks pretty much covered the same stories in much the same ways, and nearly every local newspaper pulled its biggest stories from The New York Times wire. While you could (and I would) argue about plenty of disadvantages to that setup, it did have one big advantage–it put every American on the same page, informationally speaking, about news of the day.
Even then, there were alternative news sources. Anyone who listened to the World Service of the BBC noticed at least some differences between the focus of nightly news stories and the world radio stories. But such sources had to be actively sought out, and they offered such minuscule coverage compared to the MSM that they scarcely made a dent in most Americans’ ideas about the news.
Since the news sources have become more fragmented, I have noticed something interesting. With the growth in popularity of conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, the advent of 24-hour conservative news outlets like Fox News, and the explosion of blogs (which tend to lean strongly toward conservative/libertarian views), people now have a choice about the kind of news they get. And it’s more than just the way that news is reported–the slant given it by various news organizations. Different news sources choose to cover completely different kinds of stories. During the Clinton era, you could pretty much expect Fox to be right up on the latest White House eruption; The New York Times and CBS, embarrassed, would cover only the most egregious scandals. As the Iraq war took place, Fox News was covering the latest discovery that might turn out to be WMDs, while at the same time CNN was roundly complaining about President Bush’s lack of mandate. As time has passed, this schism between conservative and progressive media has grown wider. It’s now gotten to the point where, in print media, it’s almost possible to divine a story’s slant based on each media outlet’s style manual: during one key battle in Iraq, I noticed that news stories which spelled the Iraqi town as “Falluja” almost invariably originated at The New York Times and were inclined to be pessimistic; stories which used the spelling “Fallujah” often originated from Fox and were more upbeat about military successes in the region. I guess you could call it the Style Divide.
In theory, the new media landscape is likely to give readers access to a much broader spectrum of ideas and opinions. But that is only true of readers who pick from all available news sources with equal relish, and who enjoy being challenged by other points of view. More often, what actually occurs is that readers begin to cherry-pick their news sources, zeroing in on the media that most accurately reflect their own beliefs and biases, and excluding the others. I have certainly been as guilty of doing this as anyone else. It really hit home to me how bad things were when, a few years ago, I tried to have a conversation about the war with a close relative, who I believe gets most of her news from NPR and her local newspaper. After a few e-mails back and forth about various issues, during which I thought we might be making progress toward at least understanding if not actual consensus on some issues, she suddenly seemed to explode at me. Couldn’t I see that this war was wrong, that Bush was not only a blithering idiot, but actively evil and malevolent? I was honestly taken aback by this furious response, unsure what I had said to trigger such vitriol. She and I have agreed not to discuss politics any more, but it left me wondering. Was at least part of her response based on the fact that her chosen news sources bring her information that is in almost direct opposition to the news sources I choose to read? Are we getting to a point now where we as a nation can no longer have a reasoned political discussion between right and left, because there is no common ground from which the debate may proceed?
I am not suggesting that we return to the days of Cronkite telling us “that’s the way it is,” because even back then that wasn’t really the way it was. Having only one news source may bring Americans together, but only at significant cost to the truth. Yet I don’t know what the best response is to the current maelstrom of dueling news, fact pitted against fact, and people turning their faces from each other’s ideas in disgust, the same way different sects of Christianity mutually regarded each other as unbelievers bound for hell. Unless some other mitigating factor arrives to smooth over this divide, I see the gap between Red State and Blue State thought only continuing to grow wider as time goes on.
Liberals are probably more at risk than conservatives of getting a narrow read on the news. It’s possible for conservatives to be just as narrowly focused, but with the prevalence of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC news channels, a conservative is far more likely to be exposed to the Left’s take on issues than a liberal neighbor whose only sources are network news, NPR, and Air America Radio.