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January 21, 2006

Now Everyone Can Buy Ink by the Barrel

I've been meaning to write about the political significance of the rise of the Fox News Network and the blogosphere for some time now. As frequently happens, others have beaten me to the punch.

Take, for example, Peggy Noonan's column at the Opinion Journal yesterday:

I don't think Democrats understand that the Alito hearings were, for them, not a defeat but an actual disaster. The snarly tone the senators took with a man most Americans could look at and think, "He's like me," and the charges they made--You oppose women and minorities, you only like corporations and not the little guy--went nowhere. Once those charges would have taken flight, would have launched, found their target and knocked down any incoming Republican. Not any more. It's over.

Eleven years ago the Democrats lost control of Congress. Then they lost the presidency. But just as important, maybe more enduringly important, they lost their monopoly on the means of information in America. They lost control of the pipeline. Or rather there are now many pipelines, and many ways to use the information they carry. The other day, Dana Milbank, an important reporter for the Washington Post, the most important newspaper in the capital, wrote a piece deriding Judge Alito. Once such a piece would have been important. Men in the White House would have fretted over its implications. But within hours of filing, Mr. Milbank found his thinking analyzed and dismissed on the Internet; National Review Online called him a "policy bimbo."

Or, perhaps even more tellingly, consider this article from earlier in the month by Katharine Q. Seelye in the NYT:

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, or so goes the old saw. For decades, the famous and the infamous alike largely followed this advice. Even when subjects of news stories felt they had been misunderstood or badly treated, they were unlikely to take on reporters or publishers, believing that the power of the press gave the press the final word.

The Internet, and especially the amplifying power of blogs, is changing that. Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they perceived as a journalist's bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts - taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations - and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism.

She's right of course, it does have implications for the future of journalism, but also for American politics. In the bad old days, the largely East Coast liberal elite media ordinarily controlled the agenda for public debate. If a news story appeared in the NYT or WaPo or on CBS, then it was considered newsworthy and would be taken up over the following days by newspapers and television journalists across the land. Conversely, if one of these papers did not cover a story, then it was considered out of the mainstream and rarely gained any traction in other media outlets. There were exceptions, of course, like the role played by the WSJ's editorial page regarding Whitewater and the related Clinton scandals. (Though this story was originally broken by the NYT, they did not aggressively follow-up as they would have if, mutatis mutandis, Clinton had been a conservative Republican.) But in general, this rule applied.

Now this rulebook has been thrown out the window. WIth Fox News and the blogosphere, the largely liberal MSM can no longer push stories down the memory hole by simply ignoring them. (As, for example, they tried to do with the Kerry Swift Boat story during the 2004 elections.) Conversely, the NYT or CBS or the WaPo can no longer rely on the rest of the media world to fall into line when they decide something is news.

Howell Raines, famously, did not understand this new paradigm. For example, he tried, by pure repetition, to make a national issue over the Augusta Golf Club's tradition of not admitting women. His NYT ran something like 90 stories on the subject, in spite of the fact that only a handful of kooky local protesters managed to show up and protest during the Master's Tournement. More seriously, Raines' NYT was unable to ignite the political firestorm they so badly wanted over the release of the photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. They ran an above-the-fold, page one story on Abu Ghraib every day for more than three weeks running. Raines was acting like one of those cartoon British colonialists who raise their voice so the natives can understand them. However, the American public, thanks to other sources of news and analysis, judged that this was an isolated incident and was important only as a propaganda weapon that could be used against the US in the Islamic world (or against the administration in this country). In the end, President Bush kept his job and Howell Raines lost his.

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Monopolies are good things if you happen to own one or work for one. But they are not very conducive to economic efficiency or open political debate. Thanks to Messrs. Murdock and Ailes, as well as blogosphere pioneers like Glenn Reynolds and Charles Johnson, we now have some real competition in the marketplace of ideas.

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January 21, 2006 at 12:44 PM | Permalink

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