The right and the left in America don’t agree on much, but for decades, they’ve shared one basic belief: You can’t trust the mainstream media. On the left, it was the New York Times and the big TV networks beating the drums about weapons of mass destruction and leading us in to the Iraq War. Or it was the corporate control of the major media, and the consolidation of ownership. Or it was Rupert Murdoch.
On the right, it was, of course, the famous “liberal media.” And for those who came of age with the blogosphere, it was the hated “gatekeepers”, those elite, arrogant editors who controlled what made it onto the front pages – and more important, what didn’t.
I’m one of those critics, too. As the executive editor of an alternative newspaper, I spend a lot of time talking about how the daily papers and the TV stations do a lousy job covering local news. I deplore the inaccuracy and bias of my local daily; I denounce the fluffy and superficial news broadcasts that ignore the real issues. I tease my town’s gatekeepers mercilessly; you think that crap is news? Why won’t you cover the real stories?
But a funny thing is happening in 2010: As corporate control of the news slackens, and the gatekeepers become less relevant, and media becomes so hyper-democratized that any fool with a $300 computer can become a publisher, some of us are starting to miss the old days.
You see, the media world has become so wide open that Americans are choking on information – and so much of it is either so utterly biased or factually inaccurate that nobody really knows who or what to believe any more.
The Shirley Sherrod affair made that point with such stunning clarity that it surprised political observers across the spectrum. Sherrod, a midlevel Department of Agriculture employee, became the latest victim of Andrew Breitbart, the blogger and online publisher whose fabricated and altered videos shattered an entire national organization.
Of course, sleazy political activists have tried to accuse their foes of all sorts of things over the years; the most insane, inaccurate stuff doesn’t typically stick
In this case, Breitbart posted a heavily edited video of a speech Sherrod made to the NAACP. The excerpts made Sherrod look a racist who didn’t like white people — which corresponded precisely with the political narrative Breitbart was pushing.
Of course, sleazy political activists have tried to accuse their foes of all sorts of things over the years; the most insane, inaccurate stuff doesn’t typically stick. But this time around, a combination of new media technology, a split-second 24-hour news cycle and the willingness of agenda-driven talk radio to pick up on the smelliest scraps of gossip created a perfect political typhoon. Sherrod was fired, the Obama administration looked awful — and Breitbart, completely unrepentant, basked in the glory of celebrity and his soaring page views.
The sordid episode led Van Jones — a certified liberal activist and a member of the progressive political movement that has consistently blasted the mainstream media — to make an extraordinary confession: He misses Walter Cronkite. In a New York Times oped piece July 25th, Jones wrote:
“Anyone with a laptop and a flip camera can engineer a fake info-virus and inject it into the body politic. Those with cable TV shows and axes to grind can concoct their own realities. The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as our national immune system, zapping scandal-mongers and quashing wild rumors. As a step toward further democratizing America, we shrunk those old gatekeepers — and ended up weakening democracy’s defenses.”
This can’t go on forever. In a country as large and diverse as the United States, democracy can’t survive without honest reporters providing honest information that has some degree of credibility. At some point, the electronic media world will shake out — the Breitbarts of the world will become the equivalent of the Weekly World News, jabbering about space aliens and Elvis Presley’s clone. The more responsible outlets — the ones that have standards and principles — will become the accepted sources of reliable news that Cronkite and CBS once were.
The good news is that there will be more of them, and they’ll offer a broader spectrum of debate. The bad news is that we’re going to face a rough interregnum — a period when the old media have lost their credibility and are on the brink of collapse, and there’s so much new information slamming into our minds unfiltered and unedited that nobody knows if we can believe anything anyone says anymore.
And for anyone who really wants to make American politics work, that’s not a pleasant thought.
Tim Redmond is executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has won more than 30 journalism awards, including the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Editorial Writing. He is the First Amendment chair of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.