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The Blogosphere’s First President: George W. Bush

Sep
14
2004

Andrew Sullivan has a long post up at TNR – you can access it through his site here, talking about the power of the “blogosphere” and its ability to drive Dan Rather crazy and maybe, well, probably, push the election to George Bush.
Sullivan doesn’t have the first word, that goes to Glenn Reynolds who is using his site to play the role of project editor for this breaking story, compiling every detail from every source. So Sullivan won’t have the last word either. This story has legs – it’s not going anywhere – so let’s take a closer look at what we’ve got. And what we don’t.


First, stuff we all know. Any one reading this site doesn’t need me to tell them about the power of the net, the rising authority of “blogging” or the sad, sad state of the nation’s media. Political coverage has devolved into the easiest two things to cover: Gotcha journalism (of which the memos are a fine example) and horse race coverage, or polls. These are easy stories to do. That’s why there are so many of them. That’s why they constitute the bulk of our political coverage.
Blogs and bloggers have grown up in reaction to this state of affairs. Tired of dumbed-down celebrity coverage, sick of “who’s on first” political snapshots, able to get on-line and stay there for very little money, lots of folks have, in frustration, taken to the web. And they – we – are changing the business. Sullivan is right to point out CBS’s arrogance. But he misses – as most political writers do – the economics.
This isn’t a debate about typefaces. The memos are, at best, dubious. They are probably faked. And if they are established as such – and right now CBS is dragging its feet more heavily than a bull in the Spanish heat — it is going to cost John Kerry the election. Theories about oppo, counter-oppo and the like can go by the wayside. The network got fake documents. They came from Texas Democrats. Game over.
But at its heart, Rathergate as it will come to be known is about the economics – or lack thereof – of American journalism.
For years, newspaper publishers have pointed to their presses, broadcasters to their towers and technology (HDTV! ) as examples of their prosperity. All the while keeping the price they paid for labor, research and people as low as they could. In a day and age when newspapers were competitive and TV advertising a river of green, this wasn’t such a big deal. Today, it’s a tragedy. Newsrooms are staffed by people who are willing to take jobs that run counter to their economic interests. Journalists are told by their editors that it is somehow beneath them to make high salaries. They are warned about displays or bias or partisanship and, if they stay in the game, they often end up with the sort of restrictive social lives where they talk only to other reporters. This is the media bubble. And it’s ruined reporting. It’s also made Washington, D.C., once an interesting place to live nothing more than a set of professionally-oriented company town ghettos.
In a day and age when people actually read newspapers and when the local rag had some power over day-to-day events in a community, where the paper or TV station was locally owned or where the place was staffed by people who actually spent time in the community, the public service argument made a lot of sense. Reporters and editors traded high salaries for power and prestige. Today, however, the public service argument is just cover for shoddily run businesses owned by large corporations with little, if any interest, in the communities they serve. Full of wire copy you can read anywhere on the web, staffed by kids just out of school who think day care and babysitting are the same thing, lacking the resources to pay overtime to let reporters cover meetings or other events where they might meet and cultivate sources outside the paper, paranoid about criticism of political or other bias, and under constant pressure from advertisers – don’t forget revenue is falling, falling, falling while demand for profits is rising – it’s a management philosophy that attract the power-mad or the simply foolish.
It’s a deadly combination. As Virginia Postrel asks, what were these people at CBS thinking? They were thinking the same thing the folks at the New York Times were thinking: What a great story! They weren’t thinking about reaction to the story – reaction they should have anticipated from an increasingly restive public. That’s why they’re having such a hard time defending their decision; it’s why liberal Democrats like me, like Brad DeLong, like Josh Marshall are raising an eyebrow. Thinking they were living in a world where reporters’ judgments aren’t questioned because – simply by doing their jobs, they demonstrate a nobility of purpose that make their work beyond question to outsiders – CBS, probably the most out-of-touch of the networks, is floundering.
If – and it may never happen, but if – the memos are clearly found to be fake, right-wing bloggers are going to be able to claim George Bush’s re-election as their victory. They will be fully justified in doing so. Once again, good reporting – reporting done far away from the mainstream press, well outside New York and Washington – has changed an election. It is the first step in getting journalism, writing, editing – all of which make up thinking about our society, our political structure, the world around us – back to what it should – what it can be.
UPDATE:Well, it looks like the memos are indeed fakes. They’re a record of what was said and thought about Bush back in the day, but they’re not actual documents from that time.
So here’s the remaining question: Who sent them to CBS and why oh why did they take such time and effort to create them? Lots of folks are saying I’m wrong, this won’t cost Kerry the election. But you watch. If the paper work came from a Democrat — any Democrat — I think it’s over. The stain of an ugly, dirty trick doesn’t wash off very easily.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:37 AM | Permalink

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