This article by Lee Smith seems to be about two things that are loosely related. The first is the likelihood that, with the “Trump is Russia’s puppet” story, there’s no there there. But it’s the second I want to write about, the larger story of what Smith (or whoever wrote the article’s headline, “Wayne Barrett, Donald Trump, and the Death of the American Press”) refers to as the death of the American press.
It’s a long article, and I waded through it rather quickly. I must say that although that topic is one of intense interest to me, Smith’s article puzzles me. I have little doubt that Smith knows more about the inner workings of the press than I do, but what are we to make of paragraphs like this one?:
Trump adviser Steve Bannon calls the media the opposition party, but that’s misleading. Everyone knows that the press typically tilts left, and no one is surprised, for instance, that The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican candidate since 1956. But that’s not what we’re seeing now—rather, the media has become an instrument in a campaign of political warfare. What was once an American political institution and a central part of the public sphere became something more like state-owned media used to advance the ruling party’s agenda and bully the opposition into silence.
That leaves me scratching my head. Smith says that what Bannon says is “misleading.” But the rest of the paragraph seems to completely back up the stated Bannon thesis that the media is indeed the opposition party, and a rather vicious and unaplogetic one at that. So, how is Bannon misleading us?
What’s more, I have other problems with that paragraph of Smith’s. His statement “everyone knows that the press typically tilts left” is not just not literally true (of course, “everyone” doesn’t know any such thing), but I bet if I polled twenty acquaintances of mine on that subject, at least half and maybe even more of them would say that the Times is an objective purveyor of truth that doesn’t lean any particular way at all, and that it’s just that the dogged pursuit of truth and fairness happens to lead to backing the Democrat every time. After all, don’t they themselves do the same thing?
As I said, I have little doubt that Smith knows more about what the press thinks and how it works than I do. But I doubt he knows more about what the garden variety everyday liberal out there in the big wide world thinks than I do; we’re probably at least even on that. And not only does “everybody” not know what he says they know, but I would wager there’s a substantial number of people who would actively disagree with him.
Which brings us to something else about that paragraph. In that last sentence I quoted, Smith harks back to an earlier time when the media was “an American political institution and a central part of the public sphere.” Let’s take the example of the NY Times. I was raised thinking exactly what Smith says; I respected the Times greatly. But my later political transformation was fueled in part by the realization that, even back when I saw it that way, the Times had often been unworthy of that sort of respect. Perhaps they were more subtle in their cheerleading and bias, but that bias may have been all the more insidious for that. And they were already getting their facts wrong; we just had fewer ways to discover that.
I’ve written some of the details in my “a mind is a difficult thing to change” story, but right now I’ll just refer to some of them (in particular, MSM coverage of the Tet offensive). Smith rightly says that, with the advent of the internet and the plummeting of the ad revenue that used to be a major part of the financial underpinnings of the newspaper business, the MSM had to cut back drastically:
As the old Chinese saying has it, the first generation builds the business, the second generation expands it, and the third spends it all on Italian shoes, houses in the Hamptons, and divorces. For the most part, the people inheriting these media properties didn’t know what they were doing. It took The New York Times more than a decade to settle on billing consumers for its product—after giving it away, charging for it, giving it away again, then billing for “premium content,” etc. By then, it was too late. Entire papers went under, and even at places that survived, the costliest enterprises, like foreign bureaus and investigative teams, were cut. An entire generation’s worth of expertise, experience, and journalistic ethics evaporated into thin air.
Let’s take that last sentence first. I have two problems with it. The first is that, even in the golden olden days when those foreign bureaus and investigative teams were in place (say, during the Vietnam War), the papers were often getting the first draft of history wrong. An excellent example was the Tet Offensive (take a look at this book or this article summarizing the book), which the press got completely wrong, and that fake story greatly influenced subsequent events. Another turning point that occurred during the Vietnam years was the mixing of opinion journalism with straight reporting, a move I discussed in this two-part series on the role of Walter Cronkite.
I have some other quarrels with that paragraph of Smith’s. He seems to be saying that newspapers reacted to the challenge of the free content of the internet by giving their own content away too, but had they realized from the start that the way to survive was to charge for content, then perhaps they would have been financially okay. But earlier, he had emphasized the importance of classified ads in the earnings of newspapers. The internet did challenge newspapers by providing free content, but the importance of the classifieds was something the internet also helped to destroy, and how was charging for content supposed to get around that?
What’s more (to the best of my recollection, anyway), those “foreign bureaus and investigative teams” were actually greatly reduced by the time I got on the scene as a blogger twelve years ago. It seems to me that the Times’ back-and-forth experiments with charging for content and then not charging for it were conducted after they’d already cut way back and hired a bunch of youngsters.
I think that the MSM has indeed died—at least in my eyes, and the eyes of most people on the right. But I know a lot of people (liberals rather than leftists) who still read the Times every day and trust that they are getting the truth. I also think the Times’ demise, or illness, or whatever you want to call it, was very long in coming, and that its state was unnoticed by many people prior to the internet. The internet not only challenged the Times and its fellows by offering an alternative way to advertise and to obtain content on the right, but in addition it provided easy access to things such as full transcripts of speeches to which the Times might have been referring and quoting in a misleading and/or truncated way.
Not everyone availed themselves of these sources. But for those who did, their respect for what we now call the MSM plummeted.