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Archive for Monday, October 15, 2007

New media, new watchdogs

October 15, 2007

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Are you outraged by Rush Limbaugh's characterizing some Iraq war critics as "phony soldiers"? How do you feel about Joy Behar's suggesting, on "The View," that Republican presidential candidates are Klansmen?

There's a lot of hot talk going around, for two reasons. But there's also a cooling counter-trend.

The first reason for heated rhetoric is the fragmentation of the media, which encourages talking heads to turn up the burners. In the 500-channel universe - not to mention blogs and Web sites - everyone has an incentive to push into the red zone in hopes of gaining attention. And so we get professional provocateurs who specialize in splutter, from Ann Coulter on the right to Al Sharpton on the left.

The second reason for "media warming" is the deprofessionalization of the media. Continuous layoffs and a ceaseless quest for the "youth demographic" have transformed television news; the new quest is for lookers - male as well as female - who supposedly can hook eyeballs. Some of these mirror-mirror types are knowledgeable journalists, but often such skills are secondary in the Nielsens; cheekbones are more prominent than investigative credentials. And such "runway reporters" are in no position to challenge outrageous, even erroneous, statements from interview subjects.

Of course, older journalists, too, are often content to let things slide, in part because a nonconfrontational approach makes it easier to "get" good guests. CNN's Larry King, for example, seems deliberately unaware; it keeps him on a par, he says, with his audience.

Taken together, these two trends of fragmentation and deprofessionalization have made it easy for "talk" to run free. From Air America Radio on the left to Laura Ingraham on the right, what succeeds is sharp opinion. Indeed, the sharper the edge, the bigger, it seems, the market sliver.

But let's be clear: Although there's nothing wrong with commentary, for our democratic system to work, somebody has to tend to the fact-checking.

Happily, that's happening. And so we come to the cooling counter-trend: In recent years a whole new "industry" has sprung up - the Web-based media-watchdogging complex. Outfits such as the Media Research Center ("the leader in documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias") and Media Matters ("comprehensively monitoring, analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media") have taken it upon themselves to tape and transcribe just about everything their targets do and say. When they get a good "gotcha," they fire out nasty-grams, demanding retractions, even resignations.

And sometimes it works: Ask Don Imus or Dan Rather, both of whom lost their jobs over firestorms created mostly by the new Net-based media.

Critics will blast these critics - I believe, for example, that Media Matters has been unfair to Bill O'Reilly, my colleague at the Fox News Channel - and so, of course, the fact-checkers always need to have their facts checked. But as they say, if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

In any case, these media watchdogs aren't going away. The mainstream media might be disappearing into the mire of blogs and downsizing, but the "media" overall, in terms of the number of people chattering and twittering all day, is bigger than ever.

Thus the emerging dynamic: On the one hand, you can say pretty much whatever you want and perhaps be rewarded with an audience. On the other hand, somebody is probably tracking what you are saying.

If you have any sense of shame, you are more likely to speak more carefully and accurately. But, of course, that's a huge "if."

- James Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is pinkerto@ix.netcom.com.

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