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November 10, 2008

If This Is the Mainstream Media’s Last Hurrah, Its Successor Could Be Frightening


The dean of the Capitol press corps, David Broder, last week called this year’s presidential campaign the best one he’s ever covered, adding that he never thought anything would beat 1960.


The problem is that it felt like one-part pre-emptive eulogy, as if there was the tinge in Broder’s words that somehow a great ride has ended – that things will never be as good as they used to be.


This isn’t an unusual sentiment from anyone working in the mainstream media. Things today aren’t as good as they used to be, and there is a deep-seated pessimism among people still employed in American newsrooms that things will only keep getting worse.


Citing those dastardly scoundrels – industry circulation and profit numbers – ex-journalist-turned-Silicon Valley CEO-turned-blogger Alan Mutter said on his web log, Reflections of a Newsasaur, that 2008 was the last hurrah for the mainstream media. The next time around, he suggested, things will look more like a self-informed Town Hall discussion than traditional campaign coverage.


Dear god, let’s hope he’s wrong.


This year’s campaign coverage was bad, hilariously bad in some ways. Conventional wisdom that was built on more than two decades of ill-informed assumptions just simply fell apart amid what was the worst campaign coverage perhaps in history.


Things started as far back as when things got rolling. It was then that the media assumed that Hillary Clinton would easily win her party’s nomination based on name recognition and Clinton star power alone, and that a candidate would have to do well in Iowa to have any hopes of winning a party nomination.


It turns out that – duh – ground game and strategy are more important than headlines and media proclamations. John McCain’s fourth-place showing in Iowa reminded us that you can flop in Iowa and win the whole shooting match within a month.


Things finally came full circle late last weekend, with polls in battleground states showing Barack Obama cruising to an easy, blowout victory on Tuesday. Meanwhile, most national pundits ignored what the polls told us about the Electoral College and instead posed national tracking polls as if the race were a popularity contest.


To most of us, this presidential campaign seemed like it lasted just slightly less time than it’s taken for the Earth’s tectonic plates to break apart and form today’s continents. Yet, at the end, there is the Dean, blowing his funeral dirge for what was no doubt to him an endless hoot.


Yet, if this is the end, we should all be terrified. For its many miscues, errors and constant fumbling, what passes as the mainstream media today at least has a more reliable track record for accuracy that what threatens to take its place. Our greatest fear should be that basic journalistic practices are ignored and rejected and replaced as the primary source for information by partisan, ideologically-fueled shouting.


The proliferation of nonsense in what would replace the much-derided MSM has enabled people to do more than find an alternative, it’s enabled people to ignore points of view and evidence that conflict with their own prejudices. As long as you’ve got someone who says things you want to hear and nothing else, there’s no great motivation to go elsewhere.


Despite the many failings of the hated MSM, that’s not an improvement.


As media institutions fall into irrelevance – due to a number of factors, most of them financial – it needs to be replaced with something as thoughtful, informative and as accurate as the American press used to be, not whatever happens to be lying around.


The alternative is that Broder’s dirge might not just be one for campaign coverage, but for the idea of an electorate well informed enough to practice self government.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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