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The Mirror Crack’d


For those of us at the intersection of media and politics, it was a hell of a week. Big Media, the 1st Amendment and the on-line world have met; it ain’t pretty. And a glance at today’s New York Times hints at more ugliness to come as Big Media’s credibility — particularly television’s — circles the drain.
On Friday, a California judge ruled that on-line writers violated the trade secrets act in publishing information about Apple Computer. Also Friday, a group of bloggers calling themselves the OnLine Coalition – banded together to ask the Federal Elections Commission to look at its rules and decide exactly how they’re covered – or not – by campaign finance laws.
In the court case, the judge skirted the question about protecting on-line writers with laws that cover salaried journalists. It’s an important omission. One the Online Coalition – their slogan, “From Left to Right, Preserve Our Rights,” sounds familiar, no? – is attempting to address in another arena asking the FEC to grant them the same status as Big Media outfits. That, of course, will have the immediate effect – in the commission’s rules anyway – of diluting Big Media’s influence just as the judge’s ruling lumping on-line writers with salaried hacks would dilute the power and influence of traditional media outlets.
All this played out against a background described – and in some ways influenced — by Garance Franke-Ruta’s piece in The American Prospect, drawing (inaccurately, I think) connections between the Dan Rather and CBS’ Memogate, Eason Jordan’s resignation from CNN and Jeff Gannon’s White House accreditation.
There are a couple of fights going on here. They’re overlapping, which makes it hard to trace their outlines. But let’s try. But first let’s work from an understanding articulated by that great sage, Pogo. The enemy is indeed us. Many on the Left – particularly that section that thinks of itself as “progressive” – don’t like to admit that Liberal Democrats are this country’s establishment. For all his rebellious mannerism, Steve Jobs is a member of this establishment. So is Dan Rather. Eason Jordan probably counts, too. For a variety of reasons having to do with my schooling and work history, I am, too. So is Garance Franke-Ruta. And there’s a cozy relationship between our nation’s political and media establishments. Much to my satisfaction, it’s in the process of being blow apart but many, many people feel very, very differently. John Kerry’s failure to win the presidency is the most glaring sign we’ve had so far. This back and forth over who’s a “journalist” is the next step in this conflict as the nation’s political and corporate establishments attempt to defend their turf.
That’s why Apple Computer has gone to court to try and define “reporter.” The obvious purpose of its lawsuit is to intimidate the hordes of on-line writers who cover the company and its charismatic CEO Steve Jobs into toeing the party line. But it’s suit has the extra attraction of trying to define what is and isn’t journalism. That’s important for large companies long accustomed to dealing with Big Media and its cheerful handmaiden Corporate PR. Apple – and it should surprise no one that a computer company is cutting the path here – is trying to find out if it has to take all those on-line voices seriously and, if it does, it wants to know just how far it can push them. It would be better for big companies, better for Big Media and Corporate PR, if a court says the on-line world doesn’t matter; that it has no rights. That way, Big Media can keep its relationship with Corporate PR and Big Companies intact. Nothing changes.
Just as it would if the FEC kept ignoring on-line writing. But instead, one member of the commission has shown a spotlight on blogging in an attempt to start a conversation about overturning existing campaign finance law. He’s got company. Some of the Online Coalition’s more conservative and libertarian members — who also don’t like the latest campaign finance reform legislation — are hoping debate on this issue creates enough confusion and discontent (good old, FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) to get the law over-turned or substantially modified.

It could well happen; Big Boy Blogger Glenn Reynolds has already called for the FEC to be abolished; others are urging bloggers to lobby their Congressmen and Senators on this and related free speech issues. If this movement succeeds – and let’s set aside the smaller but still important questions about “coordinated speech,” that’s for another post — it’s going to further weaken Big Media’s hold on information. It’ll take them down yet another peg. And watch: the Right wing will claim yet another victory.
They’ve got bragging rights for a few already as Franke-Ruta’s piece points out, claiming – wrongly, as I’ve said – that Right wing activists have targeted and coordinated their attacks on the “liberal” media. Like Apple, Franke-Ruta would prefer a world in which Big Media can work alongside Corporate Democrats and other members of this nation’s political and economic elite. Those days are over. And it’s not entirely because of the power of the Right wing’s on-line advocacy. It’s because power – particularly the power and influence that was centralized in Big Media outlets – is becoming decentralized. That’s bad if you’re a Corporate Democrat. It’s great if you’re hard-line Conservative or Libertarian tired of having your ideas ridiculed or ignored.
These new voices are strong and voracious but they’re not all powerful and all-knowing. They do, however, pick their targets carefully. They aim most directly at TV networks. It’s not worth rehashing all the examples here. For the best take on CBS and Rather, have a look at Salon Editor Joan Walsh’s column last week. Eason Jordan was on thin ice at CNN – the best source on this is Mickey Kaus – and no one at the network felt like defending him. And Jeff Gannon’s access to the White House briefing room is not the big deal that so many people on the left want it to be. For this, read David Corn and William Powers in Friday’s National Journal. The idea that a White House briefing pass is some kind of special honor for journalists at the top of their profession is an idea as quaint as the 6 p.m. newscast.
By contrast look at Judith Miller and The New York Times. Liberal anti-war activists have been harshly critical of the papers’ pre-invasion coverage, particularly of Millers’ stories on weapons of mass destruction. They’re right to be up in arms. The Times’ coverage leading up to the Iraqi invasion was credulous and overwrought (for best writing here, see Jack Shafer). But the paper has said as much. But unlike the TV networks, it didn’t feel the need to throw one of its own over the wall to satisfy its critics. Miller still has a job. As she should. Here’s another contrast: Some 30 yeas ago, CBS and Mike Wallace sued for libel by Gen. Westmoreland. The network fought hard but in the end it paid the general. The case also set a legal standard for editing interviews that appear on TV. That legal fight would not take place today and it’s not just because CBS’s critics are more voracious. It would never happen because today’s CBS would never have defended Wallace they way it once did. Citing ratings, it would have fired him and his producer in a heartbeat.
The difference here is the response. With falling readership and viewership, slimmer margins and falling profits, Big Media TV is weak and Big Media is scared. And everyone knows it. Today’s NYTimes piece on the Bush administration’s pre-packaged news “reports” outlines just how scared they are. That’s why what would normally have been in-house screw-ups are becoming public debate. It’s not much different with regional newspapers.
Which reminds me, has anyone else noticed the absence of Big Media – the corporate side, not the reporters – in the Apple case? That case is coming down to a ruling on “trade secrets” which are gleefully violated every day by salaried business reporters . How come no one wants to lend a hand in that worthy cause? Because Big Media’s weak and Big Media’s scared. Particularly of Big Advertisers like Apple.
Big Media’s weaknesses are profound and they are lending strength to its critics. And its harshest critics are those with the most to gain and those who are the most voracious in pushing their agendas rallying other like-minded people to their cause: Pushing the buttons – the fear of falling ratings button in particular – at the networks. That’s why Right wing critics have triumphed. It’s why the Bush folks are perfectly happy to provide TV stations with stories that reflect the administration’s point of view: They know they’ll get air-time.
The Left meanwhile, sits around mourning the changes that have taken place, crying in its beer about how politicians lie (oh, news flash!) and how easily the administration’s party line is repeated without question. It’s not their party line, of course so their initial response to the political shift is to try and define journalism. The first line they draw is the one between people who have Big Media jobs and everyone else. That’s what Apple is doing, that’s what Franke-Ruta’s piece attempt to do and – more cynically – it’s what the FEC’s going to claim as its new mission.
But no one in with any sense in politics or media wants to start setting up criteria for press credentials because everyone recognizes that nut cases are the price you pay for a democratic, open and free press. I.F. Stone is a hero today but when he was alive and working there were lots of people happy to call him crazy. Experienced reporters know this. But the less experienced, those folks who want investigations and explanations are launching themselves on the same path Apple and FEC have started down: Defining journalism. Which is defining “free” speech which, in even starting that process, abridges it.
Things have changed. And as much as Liberals and Corporate Democrats don’t like to think about it, their hold over this country’s established institutions is no longer secure. That outcasts – political and otherwise — are seizing the opportunities offered them by new medium in hopes of making their views known, their voices heard, should surprise no one. What’s needed isn’t an attempt to reassert old definitions on a new reality; what’s needed is a profound adjustment to the way things are, a well-thought out Liberal response to the arguments that are being made and the gaps that are being created by the dramatic changes we’re all experiencing.
Here’s a brief proposal on where to begin: Let’s remember that the 1st Amendment isn’t the sole property of Big Media corporations. Let’s start by refusing to draw lines between journalism on-line and that which is done by folks with salaried jobs. Instead of bitching about the right and its power, why don’t Lefties start paying attention to on-line reporters and writers embracing this trend – these new names, these new thoughts – bringing them into the tent? Let’s tell Steve Jobs and Apple that his lawsuit violates one of the fundamental precepts of this country’s democracy and make it clear that his commercial interests can’t take a front seat here. But for the sake of everyone’s credibility on- and off-line, let’s also draw a clear line between subsidized speech – directly bought and paid for by candidates, by products, by clients — regardless of its venue or its point of view by marking that speech for what it is.
It’s not hard do any of these things. It just takes a look at how things are, not how you want them to be.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:36 AM | Permalink

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