On the Mend?
In today's Opinion Journal, Dow-Jones chairman Peter Kann (and a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist), offers his thoughts on the current state of the media. Mr. Kann identifies 10 trends in today's press that "ought to disturb us." He also concludes that the media is in need of some serious mending, much like the public and corporate institutions it often rails against.
Mr. Kann's op-ed is a thoughtful and incisive piece, but alas, he doesn't go far enough in describing the problems that afflict the press. I can't disagree with any of his observations, but by my calculations, there are at least three media issues that go unmentioned by Mr. Kann. Is this an error of omission or commission? Take a look at those elephants that are lingering in the room, and you be the judge:
(1) Inherent Liberal Bias. The leftward tilt of the American press has been well-documented over the past 30 years, in books ranging from Peter Braestrup's masterful The Big Story; William McGowan's Coloring the News, and Bias, Bernard Goldberg's insider account of liberal activism masquerading as journalism at CBS News. Each offers a damning indictment of the liberal bias that affects news coverage in the MSM, with scores of examples to back up their claims, particularly in analysis offered by Braestrup and McGowan. The reaction from "big media?" Collective yawns; insistence that the problem doesn't exist, or (in the case of Mr. Goldberg), painting the critic as an angry and embittered man, in the twilight of his career, and anxious to settle a score with his former boss, Dan Rather.
The irony, of course, is that the American people have long recognized this bias--and they're voting with their feet. ABC is trumpeting the fact that its nightly newscast is within 100,000 viewers of over-taking first-place NBC. Missing from that press release is a more sobering fact: viewership levels for the networks' evening news programs have plummeted over the past quarter-century. Tom Brokaw, who left the anchor chair at NBC two years ago, had more viewers when his program was in third place in the 1980s, than he had as the ratings champ at the time of his retirement. And declining audience numbers cannot be blamed on the advent of cable channels; the combined viewership of Fox, CNN and MSNBC represents only a fraction of the viewers who once turned to the "Big Three" for their evening news. Millions of Americans have simply tuned out, and liberal bias is one of the reasons.
For print outlets, the news is even worse. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation totals, released at the end of October, show that the nation's newspapers are still hemorrhaging readers. Over a six-month period (March-October 2006), three leading newspapers (the Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe) saw their circulation drop between six and eight percent, continuing a 20-year decline in readership that began in the mid-1980s. In recent years, media companies have blamed much of the decrease on the internet and on-line competition. But that explanation only goes so far, since readers started abandoning newspapers a decade before the internet arrived. And, the start of that decline also coincides with the growth of talk radio, suggesting (again) that something other than technology was driving consumers away from traditional media outlets. What factor caused this shift? I'm putting my money on media bias, since the rise of conservative talk radio corresponded with a drop in readership among more liberal print outlets.
(2) An Obvious Agenda. Watch about five minutes of a network newscast or scan the front page of a "leading" newspaper, and you can figure out the agenda of the MSM; politically liberal, socially progressive, with strong support for abortion rights, affirmative action, diversity, public schools, social assistance, government health care and virtually any other pet cause of the left. On the other hand, if you're a conservative, Republican, Evangelical Christian, or you support gun rights, limitations on abortion, social security reform, secure borders and privatized health care, watch out. Your political views, religious faith and causes will be routinely ignored, criticized, or openly mocked by the establishment press. The MSM's "agenda" is clearly a product of its liberal bias, and it's easy to spot the connection.
If you want some recent examples of the media agenda at work, do a couple of Google searches. First, enter the phrase "Abu Ghraib," then compare the number of hits received for that search to this one: "terrorist atrocities in Iraq." By my count, the number of hits for Abu Ghraib outnumbers the terrorist search by about a 5:1 margin. Yet despite the media's obsession with Abu Ghraib, that scandal pales in scope and complexity to the atrocities committed by terrorists in Iraq. But coverage of that story represents only a fraction of the column space, bytes and air time devoted to Abu Ghraib.
Here's another example. Google "Mark Foley," then do comparable searches for "Congressman William Jefferson" and "Congressman Allan Mollohan." Foley, who resigned after he sent salacious e-mails to former House pages, generates about 3,000,000 hits, thanks largely to non-stop media coverage since the scandal broke in October. A search Jefferson, who faces serious bribery charges (after $90,000 in cash was found in his freezer) receives only 1,000,000 hits, and Mollohan, accused of diverting government grants to non-profits he controls, gets only about 338,000 responses. While Foley's conduct is inexcusable, it is interesting to note that he has apparently been cleared of wrong-doing by the House Ethics Committee. Meanwhile, Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Mollohan stand an excellent chance of joining Duke Cunningham in a federal prison. But the media was obsessed with Mr. Foley (a conservative Republican), with far less scrutiny for his Democratic counterparts, who face far more serious charges.
(3) Open Disdain for Traditional American Values. Earlier this week, we noted that the Los Angeles film critics had named Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" as "best film of the year," while ignoring the director's companion work (Flags of Our Fathers), which tells the battle from the American side. Both films were made by the same production team, and they even shared at least one screenwriter. But why was Letters deemed a superior film? Was the decision truly based on the merits of each production, or was it a case of liberal critics expressing disdain for the U.S. military, choosing (instead) a film that depicts American Marines as the "enemy."
Obviously, the media's contempt for traditional values goes well beyond film criticism; America is engaged in a full--blown cultural war, with the national press solidly on the secular-progressive side. That should come as little surprise, since many journalists aren't "like" the rest of us. Various polls over the past 20 years, summarized in this 2004 Media Research Center report, have found that reporters tend to be much more liberal than the average American, more supportive of abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control, affirmative action and income redistribution. Conversely, journalists are less supportive of increased military spending, the death penalty and prayer in public schools than the public as a whole. One particularly telling statistic: according to a 1986 study, only eight percent of the media elite attend church services or the synagogue on a regular basis.
The differences between the media establishment and the "rest" of America is, thankfully, not lost on the public. Most of those responding to a 2003 Pew survey believe that the media has a liberal bias, including a majority of Democratic respondents. Continuing declines in newspaper readership and network TV audiences indicate many Americans are tired of biased, agenda-driven news that often conflicts with their values, and they've moved on to other information sources.
Which brings us back to Mr. Kann and his concerns. As a journalist, he seems to believe the media can be "fixed," if it recognizes the warning signs outlined in his op-ed. I hate to disappoint Mr. Kann, but the election of 2006 may represent the last high-water mark for the MSM. The media can't change--make that won't change--because most believe they're doing a good job. By refusing to recognize their faults and resisting change, the media institutions being warned by Mr. Kann are dooming themselves to irrelevance, and eventual extinction. And not a moment too soon.