Sunday, November 02, 2008

Campaign ’08: MSM’s last hurrah

The 2008 presidential election likely will go down in history as the last hurrah for the mainstream media when it comes to its influence over national politics.

The once pre-eminent authority of newspapers and broadcast networks in national campaigns will be diminished sharply in the future by three major and seemingly unstoppable trends:

:: Shrinking audiences and decaying advertising revenues respectively will reduce the reach and resources that the mainstream media traditionally have enjoyed in covering presidential campaigns.

:: Any remotely competent national campaign in the future will go over the heads of the media by emulating the successful interactive tactics that Barack Obama employed to raise record campaign funding; build highly effective real and virtual networks, and energize a previously apathetic generation of young and heavily wired voters.

:: The new generation of media-savvy voters will take full advantage of the abundance of news, commentary and raw information (campaign finance reports, voting records and polling data) available to them on the web. They not only will use those resources to educate themselves but also, in many cases, will add their voices to what is bound to become a national, 24/7, no-holds-barred town hall meeting.

While it may be great for our democracy to have more citizens more actively involved in the political ferment, the consequence is that MSM will be marginalized as never before in terms of audience and credibility.

In fact, the marginalization is well under way.

The 33.5 million households watching Obama’s 30-minute infomercial last week represented a larger audience than viewed either American Idol (28 million) or the interminable final game of the World Series (19.8 million).

The infomercial dwarfed the evening news audiences of the Big Three networks, which last week were 8.4 million households for NBC, 8.1 million for ABC and 6.2 million for CBS. Bill O’Reilly, who typically is the top draw on cable news, attracted an average audience in October of 3.1 million households, according to TV Newser.

Newspaper circulation has declined so much in recent years that it has fallen back to where it was in the mid-1940s, when the country’s population was half the size it is today. Only 18% of Americans now buy a daily newspaper vs. 36% in 1945.

Public confidence in the mainstream media has been eroding for at least a decade.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that only 19% of respondents trusted their local newspapers in 2006, as compared with 29% in 1998. In the same period, trust in national newspapers slid to 21% from 32%, broadcast news fell to 22% from 27% and cable news slipped to 25% from 37%. Confidence in the National Enquirer, however, doubled to 6%.

With the credibility of the media sagging well before the 2008 presidential campaign got under way in earnest, the MSM did themselves little good by repeatedly misreading the tealeaves throughout the primary cycle.

Wrapping up the race this weekend in the Washington Post, the distinguished David S. Broder characterized this as the best campaign from a journalistic perspective that he has covered since 1960. But his piece also is a vivid reminder of how often the national media were wrong about such things as the inevitability of Hillary Clinton or the improbability of Mike Huckabee winning the Iowa primary and John McCain topping the Republican ticket.

MSM haters won’t let us soon forget the uncommon number of times that the common wisdom proved incorrect among the gaggle in the bubble on the bus.

The last indignity for the MSM – and the one that virtually assures the decline of its future influence – will be self-inflicted.

As soon as the election is over, the Washington bureaus and national desks at most newspapers, magazines and networks are almost sure to be dramatically reduced by their parent companies to offset the sustained declines they have been suffering in advertising sales.

In the process, we will lose the insights and efforts of many of the talented professionals who over the years have attempted to inject a degree of honesty and balance into the inherently ill-disciplined realms of government and politics.

The MSM haters may be glad to see the correspondents go. But I won’t, because the online tsunami of misinformation, dirty tricks and invective that inevitably will replace them will overwhelm and confuse the national discourse, making it far less civil in the bargain.

For all that was wrong with the MSM – and there was a lot – their usually constructive contribution to the political process will be sorely missed in the frighteningly fractious free-for-all that likely lies ahead.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Dave D. said...

..."A degree of honesty and balance...."
..Breathtaking comment from a guy who loves newspapers but overvalues them to the point of obsurdity. These folks whom you value so much aren't going to die, are they ? They'll be thrown into the mix online, as you were. And they'll sink, or swim, as you have. When I read your blog I get information and views, from you and especially the professionals who's comments you attract, that I can't get at any paper, or in any magazine. I get it in a timely manner, from the comfort of my cabin in the woods, without cost or the bother of going out.
...No newspaper offers this and they never did. They never would have either. And if you haven't posted a new thread I go on to another blog. If they lie to me, or slant the news, I delete them.
...In this day and age and for the forseeable future, the MSM is passe. They larded their work with partisan invective and gave up even the appearance of truthseeking. They deserve deletion. In the marketplace of ideas and facts, they cheated and they got caught.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Douglas Craver said...

Excellent post. We've already seen the cut backs you predict after the election take place at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal.

I've pretty much resigned myself to relying on the BBC and CBC for an unbiased view of what is going on in the U.S. For the "local" aspect I have to rely on WCPN our local PBS radio station.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are much too premature writing off the MSM's role in politics. I live in Washington and have yet to see Web-based blogs, etc., do the sort of spade work the old MSM did on politics: the breakfasts with politicians and pollsters, or dinners where a collection of political reporters would invite a politician for a background get-to-know-you discussion. It is interesting this cycle that you note David Broder's role. He's got to be in his 70's now, and does the old-fashioned shoe leather year-round reporting for his columns that look so insightful. Would Broder have these insights and access had he not done the off-election-cycle dogged work of keeping abreast of what is going on.
Of course I see the potential in the blogs, etc., and am concerned about the future of newspapers as you are. But I don't see yet the effort and sweat many political reporters put into their beats. For all of the hype about Obama's creative use of new media, I do note that he rode around with old fashioned pencil reporters sitting in the back of the plane.
Yes, after these elections Washington's reporting ranks will be dramatically thinned out and reduced considerably. It a sign of the state of newspapering and the economy. But that old MSM ain't quite dead yet and I am willing to be four years from now you or someone else will be writing about some politician's creative use of new media and how candidates went over the head of the reporters following them because the MSM was irrelevant. In fact, didn't I read this four years ago when Karl Rove found ways around the MSM to get his boss reelected.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, tend to rely on non-U.S. based media sources and PBS.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Dexter Westbrook said...

I can't figure this out. The influence of the mainstream media has reached new lows, and it's only going to become more marginalized, and yet it's some kind of tragedy that their Washington desks, etc., are going to be dramatically reduced. So, we're going to be losing "talented professionals" who weren't going to be listened to anyway. I fail to see the problem here.

In any case, those legendary Washington desks only served, in most cases, to duplicate each other's work.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

If you're turning to the CBC for your news, I truly pity you. The content is so famously left wing and predictably anti-American, most Canadians refuse to watch the network, the audience share reportedly hovering in the 5 - 7% range.



Without government funding and Hockey Night in Canada, CBC TV would be gone from the airwaves in a month.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Mike Kelley said...

It is hard to mourn the coming demise of the liberal media, especially after their totally pathetic performance in this election cycle. The level of bias is breathtaking.

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ KATE

Ofcourse, because it is very well known and recognized that reality has a liberal bias.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy rose-colored glasses, batman!

:: The new generation of media-savvy voters will take full advantage of the abundance of news, commentary and raw information (campaign finance reports, voting records and polling data) available to them on the web. They not only will use those resources to educate themselves but also, in many cases, will add their voices to what is bound to become a national, 24/7, no-holds-barred town hall meeting.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Evil Pundit said...

The flaw in your conclusion is based on the assumption that the MSM brought something positive to the table. They never did.

They were always biased, inaccurate, and incompetent. Their departure from the public scene will improve the quality of political discourse.

1:31 PM  
Blogger rknil said...

I think you give the "MSM" too much credit. They haven't been relevant in a presidential election since 1992 or 1996. This slide has been taking place for a while.

I will (sort of) miss Bob Schieffer, though.

(Except when he asks some crazy question during a debate.)

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Pete Quily said...

Maybe some of the smart ones will start to form online group blogs like talking points memo founded by a journalist. He was recently advertising to hire new journalists for his online group blog.

Or smart newspapers will develop more sophisticated online presences beyond just reposting the print versions. ie social media features getting locals to contribute content etc. But that means they really need to understand the net, social media and how and why people use it.

John McCain didn't and Obama did, and that's one of the many reasons he won. I did a blog on that topic
here http://adultaddstrengths.com/2008/11/05/obama-vs-mccain-social-media/

Obama had nearly 6000% more pages in his website than McCain, and nearly 300% more facebook supporters.

McCain had a twitter account (microblogging site) and didn't even bother to send out a get out the vote message to his subscribers the day of the election. So you not only need to use the online tools but you need to know how to use them.

Sadly some MSM types will be too hostile to the web to learn how to do so and by the time they're willing to learn they may not have jobs.

Most bloggers agree there's still a need for some regular journalists, hopefully some will adapt.

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For all that was wrong with the MSM – and there was a lot – their usually constructive contribution to the political process will be sorely missed in the frighteningly fractious free-for-all that likely lies ahead."

Their usually constructive contribution to the political process has been sorely missed ... since about the Eisenhower Administration.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous B.N. said...

When radio came onto the scene, print survived, and when television became available, radio did not get a death sentence. To be sure, print circulation has dramatically declined. But the web sites of the traditional new organizations get more hits than the rest. Unless shrinking advertising for print can be replaced with ads on their web sites, the newsrooms will become more deserted. What suffers in the process is the most important function of the press: gathering news.
When it comes to election campaigns in particular, the Internet's multi-media platform has moved center-stage. Without the social networks and other features the Obama campaign could not have become a movement for change.
Obama actually plans to utilize his virtual community as support base for his governance and have already a change.gov site. Hopefully, he does not think along the lines of an electronic republic.
B.N.

12:57 PM  
Blogger KA said...

Isn't part of the problem of the MSM precisely how you yourself characterize the 'bias' problem of the MSM? The only thing you point to in your post as evidence of MSM's lack of credibility is its failure accurately to predict certain outcomes - Hillary's win, etc. The only thing that seems to you a question of bias is the ability to handicap politics as sport. But surely that is the least of the bias issues, yes? Those of us whom you characterize as 'hating' the MSM are quite indifferent as to whether MSM reporters predict those outcomes accurately; it is transparent and is merely betting. The bias issues, rather, start with the management of the news - the prior editorial determination that certain stories will be covered to death, no matter how marginal or irrelevant (Cf. Palin, Sarah, wardrobe thereof), and that other ones must Not Be Touched or only delicately, with a clear narrative line (Cf. Obama, Barack, e.g., Rezko, Ayers, Acorn, etc.) Managing the news by determining what stories are supposed to even be stories - and then reporting on them as narrative, with pre-formed morals to direct the reader one way or another ... it is somehow telling that you never mention these possibilities as sources of MSM bias. When people say that they don't trust the MSM - leaving aside that somewhat peculiar cohort of commenters here that weirdly decide that they trust the even more managed news of ... Canada (WTF?) - they are not referring to what you refer to. But you're a smart and experienced journalist, and surely this complaint has been made before? What's the answer?

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KA:
Your comments reflect my opinions, but are better put than I could have done. I think if you want to know why Mr. Mutter cannot quite grasp the real problem with news bias, you need look no further than his biography. You don't get to be an editor at the SF Chronicle for nothing.

Amazingly, Mr. Mutter and his friends seem to be surprised that consistently insulting half of your potential customers is not a good business model.

5:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For all that was wrong with the MSM – and there was a lot – their usually constructive contribution to the political process will be sorely missed in the frighteningly fractious free-for-all that likely lies ahead."


Not by me. The liberal bias of the MSM got worse in 2008 than ever before. The MSM really has no credibility outside the coterie of liberals who somehow think, like the commenter above, that reality=whatever-liberals-believe.

Asking a liberal journalist about media bias is like asking a fish if it feels wet. They just dont get it.


"The bias issues, rather, start with the management of the news - the prior editorial determination that certain stories will be covered to death, no matter how marginal or irrelevant (Cf. Palin, Sarah, wardrobe thereof), and that other ones must Not Be Touched or only delicately, with a clear narrative line (Cf. Obama, Barack, e.g., Rezko, Ayers, Acorn, etc.) Managing the news by determining what stories are supposed to even be stories - and then reporting on them as narrative, with pre-formed morals to direct the reader one way or another ... it is somehow telling that you never mention these possibilities as sources of MSM bias."

KA, well said.

In 2008 the MSM was more baised than ever before, hiding relevent stories that might hurt Obama, ignoring the serious corruption connections between him, Rezko, Gov Blago, etc., building up his positives with puff interview and fluff stories, all the while continuing an unrelenting campaign of negativity towards all things Bush, Republican, etc.

You want to get the real scoop on the real issues with media bias? Visit Newsbusters.org. That gives you, as Paul Harvey would say, the *rest* of the story. You can consider it the scorecard site on media bias.

"But I don't see yet the effort and sweat many political reporters put into their beats. For all of the hype about Obama's creative use of new media, I do note that he rode around with old fashioned pencil reporters sitting in the back of the plane."

Yup, and what value-add were they? All they did was repeat the Obama campaign message at face value. You can get that by hiring a minimum wage Obama-bot kid and getting him to cut-n-paste press releases. Media bias is part of what make the liberal MSM a useless appendage. Shed the bias and the ol' dinosaurs just might figure out how to survive.

9:21 AM  

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