Saturday, August 27, 2005


A Defense of the Mainstream Media

The Mainstream media take a fair amount of heat from bloggers. As card-carrying members of the digital guerrilla media, it's our job to keep an eye on our wood-based brethren. But an article in this week's New Yorker reminds me how much we all depend on the mainstream media and why we all have a stake in its survival.

The article is a profile of Hugh Hewitt, a conservative who has a vision to transform the mainstream media into wholly partisan media (sorry no link):

"Lately, [conservatives] have been not only complaining more full-throatedly but also devising, with more energy than before, their own version of what jounalism ought to look like: faster, more opinionated, more multimedia, and less hung up on distancing itself from the practice of politics than the daily-newspaper and network-news versions."

Hewitt, who is a blogger, radio host, writer, and lawyer, has constructed this critique on a classically postmodern foundation: since we cannot be objective, the enterprise of journalism is built on a fiction. It is therefore more transparent to surrender to our partisan beliefs and use journalism to forward them. Any hope of remaining objective, Hewitt says, is "vanity."

Hewitt's diagnosis is right, but his prescription is disastrous. The postmodern critique, as a reaction against the pure-science approach of mid-century modernism, was an important one: it forced even hard scientists to recognize subjectivity as an undeniable element of all understanding. So when Hewitt describes journalism as a subjective enterprise, he's accurate. The reason the blogosphere has become so relevant so quickly is exactly because it serves as an antidote to mainstream media's (MSM) false sense of objectivity. It's a useful corrective.

But this is where Hewitt goes wrong, throwing baby and bathwater out the door. Underlying his assumption that the MSM is subjective is a parallel assumption: that it's liberal and its ends are to advance a liberal agenda:

"It's a seamless web. It has always been a seamless web. The Washington Post is an activism tool for liberals. The New York Times is an activism tool for 'way liberals. Polling is an activism tool. Every time the Post or the Times runs a poll, they are attempting to influence legislation. They are engaged in activism."

Hewitt is, of course, dead wrong. For many long decades, the intention of journalism has been to reveal the truth, not advance a political agenda. We know, thanks to the postmodern critique, that "truth" is a concept tinged with subjectivity. But we also know this applies to astrophysics, not just journalism. We don't abandon the discipline just because we've discovered that there's subjectivity to the method. Journalism may sometimes fail to acheive pure objectivity, but let's not confuse the result with the intent. The intent to tell the truth is absolutely critical.

Hewitt's intention has nothing to do with truth: he explicitly wants to advance conservative politics. He wants not to inform, but indoctrinate. To the problem of a press not sufficiently objective, Hewitt offers perfect subjectivity. We've seen this far too often from our leaders in the past five years--shifting rationales, corrupted data, misleading reports. According to this logic, since any report, rationale, or dataset may be inaccurate, how can we criticize our leaders for being wrong? (And certainly, we've heard a lot of this kind of apologia in recent months from righties.) So it is with the press--why worry about the "truth?" Let's just write about what we already believe--that's so much more transparent.

I will no doubt continue to carp about the Washington Post and New York Times here at Hog HQ. But I see not the slightest evidence that any of our national or most local press are engaged in anything but true journalism. They may not always achieve truth, but they're shooting for it. We can't live in a free society without that touchstone, and I certainly respect and appreciate their efforts.

So to, apparently, does Hewitt. As a strange coda to this article, Hewitt has spent the past week talking on his blog about why he agreed to do the article for a crazy liberal rag like the New Yorker. Hewitt's response:

"I have been asked by many why did I "chance" such a piece? Answer: Before I agreed I read everything Nicholas Lemann had produced for the magazine over the previous four years, and found all of them to berigourously fair and of course spectacularly well written."

His appraisals of the piece are congratulatory. He admires how well author Nicholas Lemann presented his side of the story. He essentially calls it a "fair" piece. In essence, it captures the truth of the matter. Does Hewitt imagine that such an article would be possible in the mediascape he envisions?

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