Behind President Barack Obama’s gripe to Bill O’Reilly that Fox News is always unfair to him stood a deeper resentment that has poisoned the soul of progressives for some time: Hollywood and academia might still be firmly in the grip of the orthodox left, but part of the media has managed to wriggle free. Liberals still can’t get over this fact, and their rearguard actions to regain control come in different forms: some, like our President’s objections, are innocuously transparent and amusing; others, like a recent research report on the future of media by the Brookings Institution, are more circuitous and perhaps more worrying.
In the joint paper by two of its heavy hitters, the well-known and influential Washington think tank lays out a plan that would reverse some key media trends of the past few years, such as the growth of partisan commentary, citizen journalism and Americans’ new-found ability to readily find opinions they like. The paper was authored by the Vice President for Governance and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Darrel West, and Web Content and Digital Media Coordinator, Beth Stone. They write in the most academic and detached of tones and if you weren’t careful, you wouldn’t notice how some of their recommendations would silence the new diversity of views. They make clear from the start that what motivates them is primarily the impact that the revolution in media has had on policy-making, which is one reason we should all care.
While talk radio and FOX grab much of the attention, what really broke the left’s control over media was the Internet. Before its advent, one needed a large investment in a printing press or a broadcast tower to engage a mass audience; afterward, all one needed was a few hundred dollars for a basic computer and Internet service. The web shattered barriers to entry and, suddenly, pent up demand for information free of non-progressive bias met an onrush of supply.
The liberalization has been vast. Advances in mobile telephone technology now makes it possible for an ever growing portion of humanity to do what only a few cameramen and photographers working for premier outlets were able to do just 15 years ago: record the news as it happens and send it around the world seconds later. One tragic, very well-known example is that of the citizen journalists in Tehran who recorded the murder of the young female demonstrator named Neda at the hands of state security agents, a crime which revealed to many the brutal nature of the Iranian government. Citizen journalists, of all political hues, can now connect with the world.
Social media like Twitter, meanwhile, have taken the place of wire services like The Associated Press or Reuters, at least in the segment of the market devoted to the delivery of raw news, the transmission of events without comment, context or background. Twitter beat the wires with both the execution of Osama bin Laden and Whitney Houston’s overdose. In the latter case, the niece of the person who found Houston’s body quickly tweeted out the news. Because every niece or nephew of witnesses to history will henceforth have access to social media, AP and Reuters will find it increasingly impossible to succeed at one of the things at which we wire service squirrels used to compete and excel, being the first with the news. To be sure, it is now incumbent on the consumer of news to be the filter and buyer beware is the order of the day. But the rapid dissemination of news is no longer the sole province of wire service journalists. Everybody, no matter his or her views, can now be a wire service hand.
These trends have commoditized raw news, the end of the business that is as undifferentiated as copper traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. This part of the business now sells at a price that is set by the market, with low margins. The business that now commands a premium is commentary, the differentiated part. When CBO chief Douglas Elmendorf says that Obamacare will “disincentivize work” that is undifferentiated news transmission; when Avik Roy writes on Forbes.com, “Bored with your job? No worries—now you can quit, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers,” that is differentiated commentary; Roy has added value by interpreting the news event. Straight news is nearly free while commentary is rising. This is one of the reasons why FOX and MSNBC is succeeding and CNN is not.
The use of infographics, graphs and videos, meanwhile, has further democratized information absorption, making it easier now to connect with people who are more visual than verbal but who nonetheless vote. This transition has been especially rough for old-style journalists. In a recent New Yorker profile of the digital pioneer Ezra Klein—who was just walked away from the website he built at the Washington Post, Wonkblog, to do his own thing at Vox Media, a group of websites—the paper’s former managing editor put Klein’s initial struggles this way: “A lot of people at the Washington Post in traditional reporting roles lacked an appreciation that story telling on the web can be a lot more engaging if you don’t rely just on words.”
Much of the liberalization has been a function of the very nature of digital journalism. The emphasis on straight news and words was tied to the constraints ofa time when, as web guru Clay Shirky likes to describe it, we imported wood from Canada, pulped it, spread ink all over it and had neighborhood children on bikes throw the final product under our cars in the driveway. “The web explodes that constraint,” the New Yorker quoted Klein as saying.
Looking back, it is hard to even think that a mere 25 years ago, a handful of liberal anchormen and a dozen or so newspaper columnists pretty much controlled how the nation saw or read the national news. Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner and the others, all good Americans to be sure but liberal to the core, talked to us every night and gave us the news that they had selected to be the news. They were pretty authoritative, and had the power to be.
Cronkite even used to close his broadcasts by intoning, “and that’s the way it is, today” followed by that day’s date. They insisted that they were just giving us news and that they were impartial, and they did sound dispassionate, but reality was otherwise. By choosing what was news, what they prioritized, the tone they used and whom to interview, the old set of journalists were able to bias the news. Comment, context and background in the transmission of news massage the message. It wasn’t just news we were getting. When Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War the gig was up, and LBJ knew it, saying famously, “If I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost the nation.” The nation really did pay attention to what Uncle Walter said.
What we had, then, was a liberal version of the news sold as homespun common sense, pretty much the same way Pete Seeger surreptitiously worked socialist lyrics into banjo music. So, in other words, we have always had news with a point of view, the only difference is that today the pretense is on its way out and what’s hot is the openly opinionated.
What we know
Because explicit commentary is winning the day with the ratings, journalists are being forced to drop the façade of impartiality. Now we know for sure what always suspected, that Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell and Nina Totenberg are very liberal, and we know this because they’ve outed themselves. We know that FOX leans right and MSNBC leans left, and the consumer of news is able to use this knowledge to filter the information they provide. Sure, NBC, ABC and CBS insist on maintaining the old pretense of neutrality as does—of all outlets in the world—The New York Times, but we are much better off now that many outlets have explicit points of view. In a way, we have gone back to the future. Pamphlets and newspapers in the 18th and for most of the 19th century were out front with their political predispositions and many were in fact outright party organs. Only when the source of revenue shifted from party coffers to ads from companies selling detergent or breakfast cereal did newspapers adopt the affectation that they were impartial.
Politically, the result of media’s liberation from the liberal monopoly has been the beginning of the end of the era of compromise, during which both parties colluded on ever-rising government spending. The left began its stranglehold over the knowledge industry with patronage under the New Deal, and from that time to the present we have seen government spending balloon from around 10% of GDP to 40%, and the amount the government spends on transfer payments has gone from 30% of the budget to around 66%. Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, Bob Michel and the other Republican politicians of the second half of the 20th century merely managed the growth of government but never mounted much of an opposition to it, let alone try to reverse it. The Internet fractured all that and has fueled the rise of the Tea Party. Ted Cruz is no Bob Dole.
It must bother the President no end that he has to contend with the likes of FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Breitbart News, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, James O’Keefe and thousands of independent bloggers too numerous to name, plus a network of millions of conservatives sharing the content they create on social media. Questions on the IRS’s oppressive tactics against conservative groups (there’s no other way to describe it); the killing of an American ambassador at Benghazi, Libya, and the tragicomedy that Obamacare has become, will now keep surfacing. Thus the President’s evident petulance. And it just kills his supporters that the most progressive President since Wilson, or perhaps ever, is being blocked from implementing what is to them a beautiful vision of government-led bliss and finally transforming the country into another industrial social democracy. The President’s backers look down on Sen. Cruz, and tellingly their biggest complaint is not that he’s conservative but that he refuses to play along like many did before him.
Thus the Brookings paper, which starts innocuously enough. Who, for example, could object to a paper that opens with something as reasonable as:
At a time of extraordinary domestic and international policy challenges, Americans need high-quality news. Readers and viewers must decipher the policy options that the country faces and the manner in which various decisions affect them personally. It often is not readily apparent how to assess complicated policy choices and what the best steps are for moving forward.
You know you are wading into difficult waters, however, when in the very next paragraph West and Stone quote warnings about the perils of the present political polarization from Brookings’ Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein. AEI is indeed a conservative think tank, and a jewel of one at that, but any idea that coupling these two scholars from AEI and Brookings produces a balanced analysis should go out the window. Ornstein is AEI’s resident liberal and about as representative of the scholarship at AEI as I am of the Harlem Globetrotters. Mann and Ornstein are themselves very partisan players who would like nothing better than to go back to the old days when Tip O’Neill got the better of Bob Michel in the House of Representatives; they blame all of Congress’s dysfunctions on the Republicans, especially the Tea Party branch. So when West and Stone blame the role the news media are currently playing in the polarization that Mann and Ornstein decry there is more than just the sound of academic “tsk, tsking”—there’s also a slight whiff of “here’s hoping that we could set this darn clock back.”
In fact, attempts to do just that permeate the entire paper and its recommendations. West and Stone even chide the practice of pairing conservatives and liberals on TV to comment on issues, which they say results in “polarization of discourse and ‘false equivalence’ in reporting.” Getting both views means there is a lack of “nuanced analysis,” which “confuses viewers,” they write. As with all liberal grousing, there is also throughout the paper the suspicion that the average American is not capable of filtering the news by himself. Another passage reads, “the average reader’s ability to critically judge this new presentation of digital data is still developing and is lagging behind the ubiquity of interactives and infographics on the web.”
So journalists should lead the average American reader out of his torpor by linking to thoughtful commentary that give the context the reader needs, just like in the old days. And who might be good examples of such much-needed context-givers? West and Stone observe that “Platforms such as the Washington Post’s Wonkblog and Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” provide daily developments in policy news for those seeking to understand the intricacies of complex issues.” And, no it doesn’t end there. They also recommend Democracy Now!, which they describe as “a daily, independent program operated by journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. It runs stories that have ‘people and perspectives rarely heard in the U.S. corporate-sponsored media.’ Among the individuals it features include grassroots leaders, peace activists, academics, and independent analysts. The program regularly hosts substantive debates designed to improve public understanding of major issues.”
Both Sullivan and Klein are uniformly liberal in all issues and supportive of Barack Obama’s agenda. They are also, however, deep-thinking innovators who explain things thoroughly in their respective sites, even if from their perspectives. Not so for Goodman and Gonzalez, who can only be described as neo-Marxist apologists for Chavez, Castro and the Sandinistas.
We can only be thankful that West and Stone revealed their weakness for Goodman and Gonzalez for it alerts the discriminating reader to be on the lookout for danger to come, and it doesn’t take long to materialize. Buried beneath moderate-sounding verbiage there is nothing less than a call for neutering the citizen journalist through mass editing (crowd sourcing) and for making it harder for average web searchers to find ideas that do not conform to the accepted wisdom. “Citizens without journalistic training may be more likely to report inaccuracies or file misreports,” they write. “Because they are reporting of their own volition, it is possible that they might have a specific agenda or bias. They may repeat false ideas reported elsewhere and help bad ideas go viral.” Combining the mass editing of crowdsourcing (“the virtues of collective reasoning,” as the authors put it) with citizen journalism, however, would be a way to hold these untrained journalists accountable.
Perhaps even more troubling is their proposal for dealing with diversity of views on the web. West and Stone quote New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson as opining that there is “a human craving for trustworthy information about the world we live in- information that is tested, investigated, sorted, checked again, analyzed, and presented in a cogent form. …. They seek judgment from someone they can trust, who can ferret out information, dig behind it, and make sense of it.” I think we all know what the managing editor of the Times thinks when she talks about sorting and analyzing news. So here’s what West and Stone propose:
Search engines employ many criteria in their algorithms, but many of them are based on the popularity of particular information sources. Yet these algorithms lack the embedded ethics of human gatekeepers and editors. Articles or sources that generate a lot of eyeballs are thought to be more helpful than others which do not. This biases information prioritizing towards popularity as opposed to thoughtfulness, reasonableness, or diversity of perspectives. “Digital firms should be encouraged to add criteria to their search engines that highlight information quality as opposed to mere popularity. They could do this by adding weight to sites that are known for high-quality coverage or providing diverse points of view. This would allow those information sources to be ranked higher in search results and therefore help news consumers find those materials.
In other words, Google, Facebook et al should move up higher and promote the “high quality coverage” practiced by Abramson, Klein, Sullivan, Gonzalez and Goodman, and which would produce once again the type of politics that Ornstein and Mann find acceptable. Much lower down would be the muck-raking journalism of James O’Keefe and Breitbart, the opinions of Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt or pieces run by National Affairs or NRO. Sen. Cruz’s refusal to go along with higher spending, or Sen. Lee’s analysis of how our current welfare system keeps the poor poor would be about 20 clicks away, if anywhere at all.
There is nothing wrong with Brookings’ West and Stone making their case, though it would have been better if they had been up front about it, rather than let their readers decipher their intent by the leanings of the people they cited. There are arguments to be made for the civility that most news outlets observed during most of the 20th century. Lamentably, many people use the Internet today to savage their opponents. And, yes, hoaxes are pervasive. After the one of the Olympic rings failed to open in Sochi, Russia, a “story” made the rounds on the web about how the man responsible had been found stabbed to death in his hotel room. It was utterly untrue.
But, no, the old days when an (overwhelmingly liberal) elite “tested, investigated, sorted” the news for the rest of us did not result in a better-informed citizenry; there is more information available to the common man today than at any other time in human history, and more variety of views. And for all its comity, the era of media monopoly also produced sub-par governance. Citizens armed with facts they can now unearth can now question the direction of our government, and so we finally have a real debate about its future growth.
No going back
At Heritage, another well-known and influential public policy organization and purveyor of content that may not please the old elites, we have a dog in this fight. We are transforming the Foundry from a blog to its own media outlet, and its editor in chief, Rob Bluey, tells me: “The need for honest, thorough, responsible reporting has never been more critical. It’s troubling that liberals would want to suppress anyone they disagree with from doing this important work — whether it’s a citizen journalist or large news organization. That’s why we need more voices, not fewer, as Andrew Breitbart often said.”
It would be dangerous if Google, Facebook or the other major players were to follow West and Stone’s advice, or if they’re already giving undue weight to liberal opinion. Google assures us that its search algorithms are computer generated exactly to remove human bias from the process. Clicks determine what rises to the top. While the “legitimacy” of a site is one of the criteria that influences how high a link rises in a search, legitimacy is also overtime determined by popularity. “It’s pure democracy; the public votes what’s the best source,” a Google official told me. Both Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt are well-known liberals who support President Obama’s key policy initiatives. If they were to let their political proclivities dictate what’s promoted on their platforms we could start slipping back the age of Uncle Walter.
More likely, however, we will see an erosion of the left’s grip on another industry of the knowledge-class liberal triumvirate: academia. For-profit schools represent the biggest threat the higher education establishment has faced for years. There, the battle for holding the for-profit upstarts will be fierce, and much of it will be fought in the halls (or rather, the lobbies) of Congress. But there are signs that universities may be in for the type of technology-induced creative destruction that has been roiling media for the past 15 years. If that happens, expect rearguard battles that will make the present play in media pale by comparison. As Henry Kissinger famously said about the savagery in the faculty lounge, “the infighting’s so high because the stakes are so low.”
Mr. Gonzalez, the Vice President of Communications at The Heritage Foundation, is a former newswire and newspaper reporter and editorial writer. His book on Hispanics is due out this September.