Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Internet and the Agora

“The object of reasoning is to find out, from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know.” – Charles Pierce (1870)

The blogosphere seems to be flushing the mainstream downstream. The blowback is venomous, not a pretty sight. Media stars, especially, are fighting a vicious rear guard action against the inevitable. The rise of the Internet and the fall of traditional journalism are giving hyperbole a new lease on life.

First we see Tom Friedman on Meet the Press calling the Internet “an open sewer of disinformation”. Then we hear Eric Schmidt, from the heights of Mountain View, second the motion by calling the Net a “cesspool.” Next, Ellen Goodman, in her swan song, tells us with a straight face that Internet users will lament the loss of “fact checkers” and old school “journalists.”

Friedman’s attack on the blogosphere fairly drips with irony. His opinion colleague at The New York Times, Maureen Dowd, was cited for plagiarizing from a blogger last May. And now again in February the Times has had to fire a financial reporter, Zachery Kouwe, for lifting copy from The Wall Street Journal.

Truth is not simply what you say; it is also what you don’t say. What Ms. Goodman does not say is that facts are what we choose to believe. Unfortunately, what we believe is not necessarily true. And so it is with Goodman’s facts and analysis.

A list of fact checkers from Ms. Goodman’s world of truth might include; Janet Cooke, Ben Bradlee, Stone Phillips, Jane Pauley, Mike Wallace, Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Dan Rather, Nina Totenberg, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Professor Goodwin is included here because she is a high profile triple threat; academic, historian, and Media maven.

These traditional practitioners have one or more of the following in common; fraud, plagiarism, misrepresentation, cover up, or little or no fact checking. These are just the descriptions that might be used in polite conversation.

Yet, those are not all of the facts. Consider also the iconic institutions that employed or continue to employ such poseurs: The Washington Post, NBC, CBS, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, ABC, National Public Radio, and Harvard University.

Cases of journalistic malpractice often have common denominators; tenured activists and like-minded employers. The Washington Post and The New York Times cases are instructive. Their agendas were mirror images.

In September 1980, Janet Cooke created a fiction about a young District of Columbia crack addict. The Post story was nominated by the paper’s editors for a Pulitzer Prize. After the prize was awarded, some real fact checkers couldn’t find the lad in question and the fraud was exposed. When Editor Ben Bradlee tried to return the prize; the Pulitzer Committee demurred at first, confirming that this competition, like the annual Norwegian Nobel peace contest, is a kind of Special Olympics for the politically correct.

The New York Times fraud of 2003 was an eerie parallel to The Washington Post tale more than two decades earlier. Times editor Howell Raines ignored internal complaints about Jayson Blair’s sloppy work and advanced his young black protégé anyway. And, like Janet Cooke, Blair stepped on a land mine covering a story with racial overtones – the Beltway sniper.

Blair’s scam was exposed by a former Times employee and the scandal occasioned an internal review that pretty much concluded that Jayson’s entire tenure under Raines was an extended exercise in misguided affirmative action, if not ethnic immunity. After the Raines era, The New York Times might have changed its motto to; “All the news that fits, we print!”

The real story behind both frauds was the hazards of soft racism. Both reporters were all too willing to spin narratives about African American drug abusers and serial killers that their editors were all too willing to print - facts be damned. This willingness to confirm racial stereotypes by black reporters and white editors is the real tale yet to be told.

The perils of patronizing bias are not limited by race, youth, or sex. Newsroom cougars have been part of the swim to the bottom too. Maureen Dowd, Sally Quinn, and Ellen Goodman could be pinups for journalistic agnotology, other variants of false narrative.

Miss Dowd recently accused a congressman of calling the president a “boy” with no proof other than innuendo. The false narrative here is the belief that those who criticize black politicians are bigots. Ms. Quinn (Ben Bradlee’s wife), along with Jon Meacham, famously hosts an ecumenical web site (On Faith) which features Islamist apologists. The false narrative here is the belief that there are “moderate” or harmless variants of Jihad and Sharia. And lastly there is Ellen Goodman, herself, who in a recent column equated those who question some of the “junk science,” associated with global warming, with “holocaust deniers.” These recent cases illustrate the lack of fair play and racial double think that has come to characterize many traditional newsrooms.

As it is with fact checking, reporting, and analysis; Media dinosaurs are again unwilling or unable to deal with truth. The mainstream monopoly is over. It is no longer possible for a few elites with a narrow ideology to control information or analysis, the building blocks of belief. Hemingway, a journalist by trade, was fond of saying that good writers know what to throw out. The same might be said of good editors.

Politics, academia, and journalism are all troubled by the absence of term limits. Over time, these institutions tend to collect like-minded players where tenure becomes the dominant idiom. Small wonder that the ideological stasis at the networks and in the newsroom has fueled the “thunder on the Right,” enabling the rise of the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rupert Murdoch. A news consumer hopes to be better informed by the provider. If we are misled or polarized; surely, these are self-inflicted wounds.

Limbaugh and Murdoch have thrived for different reasons. Limbaugh sees himself as a voice for a “silent majority,” an audience patronized or ignored by the mainstream. Unlike his detractors, Limbaugh makes no secret of his agenda and he makes no fatuous claims of impartiality. Murdoch is probably less ideological, but just as savvy. Possibly taking a cue from Limbaugh, Murdoch and his FOX network recognized an underserved audience and exploited the bias of their competitors. There’s money to be made in filling a vacuum – even when it’s something as simple as providing another point of view.

The virtues of the new paradigm are self evident. On the Internet, readers can go to an original content site, an aggregator, or they might create their own site. No one, save endangered pundits, laments the end of network and press monopolies; or the role that tenure, spin, hypocrisy, and bias play at those institutions. The Internet is the best thing to happen to free choice since Erasmus; the best thing to happen to democracy since John Locke; and the best thing to happen to commerce since Adam Smith. The Internet is the new agora, a new market for ideas. The end of the mainstream, the mendacity monopoly, is gospel. Good news indeed!


A shorter version of this piece appears in the American Tinker on 27 Feb 10.
The author is also the principal contributor to Anacostia Angst on Blogspot.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Howell Raines; Back from the Boneyard

Seeing Howell Raines, disgraced former editor of the NY Times, preach about honesty in journalism (WashPost Op-Ed, 14 March) is a little like listening to Harry Reid (D-Nevada) trying to sell gambling and prostitution as destination resorts. In 2003, Raines, you may recall, was encouraged to spend more time “fly fishing” after his ace reporter, Jayson Blair, was exposed as a fraud and a cheat. Numerous staffers had raised alarms about Blair’s work, some of it on the DC beltway sniper story, but Raines would hear no criticism about his affirmative action protégé - facts be damned.

The Blair fiasco was a bizarre echo of a similar incident at the Washington Post two decades earlier when a Ben Bradlee protégé cooked the books about a young black heroin addict in the District of Columbia. Bradlee nominated Janet Cooke for a reporting Pulitzer which she won. When Cooke’s fiction was exposed, the reporter and the prize went up in smoke; both consumed by the white heat of truth.

The ugly side of affirmative action was the real story behind both incidents. Two white editors, afflicted by a kind soft bigotry, were reluctant to use the same standards of journalism with minorities and women that are applied to white males. Indeed, in both cases, black reporters were all too eager to manufacture racial stereotypes; and two politically correct editors were all too willing to sacrifice integrity on the altar of ethnic or gender immunity.

Now Raines, dripping with trout stream indignation, laments the standards at FOX and blasts Roger Ailes as a kind of newsroom ogre. The irony, and personal animus, here has a sickly sweet sent of mendacity - leavened with envy. FOX and internet journals are thriving while archaic outlets like the Times and the Post are sinking, stuck in the muck of a tedious patronizing ideology. Raines, like the fictional Colonel Jessep, “can’t stand the truth.”

Traditional journalism is going under because it is still printing a product that fewer and fewer customers want to buy or read. The dinosaurs are walking the plank; an aging species that can not see that adaptation might be as simple as providing another point of view. Mr. Raines, and like minded editors, makes the inevitable, and enviable, success of FOX possible. Rupert Murdoch should send Howell Raines a thank-you note, a copy of Pinocchio, and a box of hand-tied trout flies.


About Me

The author is a native of the Bronx, a transplant to DC. He is a Vietnam veteran and former USAF Intelligence officer with tours at all of the major 3 button Intelligence agencies. He is a graduate of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. School and Cardinal Hayes HS in NYC. He also has several degrees from less illustrious institutions. Check Six writes primarily at G. Murphy Donovan and Agnotology in Journalism. His work has appeared in various political, national security, and Intelligence journals.