It's been more than a year now since Andrew Keen's indictment of the Internet in The Cult of the Amateur. According to Keen, the sad result of recent trends in how information is circulated has been the deterioration of authoritative sources and uncertainty over the relative importance of stories. I completely agree.
Where I disagree is the of this rising cloud of confusion. It's not the blogs that have caused faith in the media to decline. It's not Wikipedia which has led to a diminished respect for facts and research. The fault doesn't lie with the amateurs. It's squarely in the court of the professionals.
By this I don't mean to engage in a "Judy Miller Attack," placing the blame on those who gather and report the news. Keen is quite correct to point out that many -- most -- reporters are both knowledgeable about their subject areas and courageous in their efforts to gather information. As someone who never held a reporting position higher than $5-a-story stringer to a small town weekly, I feel both awe and gratitude for the people who place their careers and bodies in harm's way to see that I get news from halfway around the world. There are a few bad apples (and sour Picklers) in the barrel, but most reporters are in fact both capable and objective.
That's not enough. Keen's attempts to defend the traditional media by stating that reporters are good is like trying to sell a Yugo by boasting of its high-quality tires.
The media -- newspapers, radio, and television -- is not made up of reporters running on a sparkling field of journalistic integrity. Those reporters are instead embedded in a machine intended to do the one thing that Mr. Keen sets as the mark of professionalism -- make money. And the way the media has chosen to make money over the last few decades is, perversely, by devaluing their own product. The clearest illustration of this can be found in three massive changes that have affected news over the last two decades: the increase in radio pundits, the establishment of the Fox News Network, and the reaction of the remainder of the media to the first two events.
The idea of folks who jabber about politics on the radio certainly isn't new, neither is the ad-mix of news, gossip, advertising, and opinion. Paul Harvey carried on this way for over seven decades, and acted as a bridge to even earlier practitioners. Harvey, like his predecessors, mingled ugly disdain for liberals and selectively distorted newscasts amongst his folksy product pitches, helping to lay the groundwork for the Limbaughs and Savages to come. The critical difference between the newcomers and what's always been there is little more than a switch in balance between the amount of vinegar added to the honey.
But the right wing talk brigade doesn't exist just to build up their own or tear down Democrats. They have, from the moment they first rolled onto the air, existed to tell you that . The Washington Post? Inside the beltway losers out of touch with real America. CNN? The Clinton News Network. The New York Times? Please. Do you really have to ask?
Punditry has always aimed as much artillery at the people who deliver the news as it does at those who make it. There's a very good reason for this. Before you can convince someone of a lie, you need to make it more difficult for them to check your information. If you establish from the start that NPR is communist, MSNBC and CNN are slanted, and every newspaper this side of Journal's editorial page should be printed on pink paper, then any exaggeration you deliver becomes the de facto standard. Impugning the validity of other news sources is the first job of a successful pundit. They don't seek to be your sources of information by passing along reliable news. They do so by constantly assailing the legitimacy of other sources until you're left shaking your head at the absolute ignorance of everyone but Rush/Bill/Sean/Ann.
The same principles apply to an even greater degree for Fox News. Yes, the network exists to promulgate a rigidly conservative agenda, but it can't do that without first informing you that every other source of news is invalid. Fox doesn't compete with the other networks, it sneers at them. From its motto to its non-existent boundaries between opinion and reporting, Fox exists by being an instrument of destruction to other news providers. Why do those who watch Fox News continue to believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11 despite that idea having been disproved over, and over, and over? Because Fox tells them to. Because Fox's pundits repeat the lie. Because Fox has convinced them that no other source of fact exists.
Fox News Network alone has done more to devalue the whole idea of news than every supermarket tabloid, every radio ranter, and every blogger combined.
If both the institutions at blame are heavily weighted to the right, that's no coincidence. Conservative dogma has long held the idea that it must discredit the press by claiming that the Fourth Estate is in fact a Fifth Column. They have depended on their ability to defame factual sources as a means of easing the way for misinformation since well before the time of Joe McCarthy. The right has successfully extended this campaign into the realm of science, convincing people that both evolution and global warming are somehow "political issues," deserving of no more attention than alternatives despite reams of evidence.
The myth of the "liberal media" came long before the blogs. Discrediting the "nattering nabobs" of the press is not a game that originated with bloggers. Every blogger I know is fully aware that we could not survive without the legwork done by hardworking, professional reporters. Bloggers are not competition to the traditional media -- though they do, hopefully, act as an occasional check on its excesses. However, even if the Internet were entirely dedicated to the downfall of existing media, it would be only one popgun in a chorus of cannons. A large part of the traditional media is dedicated to nothing less than making war on the rest.
Suffering the wounds from that war, the media might have chosen to hold to strict standards and fought back by dissecting the falsehoods being directed against good reporting. Instead, that job has been left, almost without exception, to the very bloggers Keen blames as the cause. The reaction of the traditional media was quite different.
In response to the assault from less factual sources, media both accelerated the already existing trend toward mingling news and entertainment and -- in the most twisted move imaginable -- sought to imitate the mudslingers. They joined the war not by upholding their standards, but by dismissing them. And again, they did so for the reason that Keen indicates as the break between amateur and professional: the perception that there was more money to be made on the less truthful side of the aisle.
Rather than fight back against patently nonsensical claims of bias by professional vomiters like Hannity and O'Reilly, the other networks responded by filling their ranks with Becks and Buchanans. Dazzled by Fox's growing ratings, the other broadcasters became quislings to their own cause, confirming the idea that they were less than reliable by less reliable.
At the same time, both networks and newspapers devoted increasingly fewer resources to "hard news," and turned more dollars toward entertainment features. The drive to do so affects everyone from the no-longer-so-Gray Lady and the freshly perk-ified Tiffany Network to the 24 hour cable shouting festivals. As time goes on, they've increasingly broken the barriers between the news and entertainment, a fact reflected in the ever-thickening fashion sections of papers, the mainstreaming of trash like the New York Post and Washington Times, and the unweighted transition from war news to visiting pop-stars in the midst of news broadcasts.
In interviews, Keen has often attempted to dismiss the value of Wikipedia by pointing out that the entry for "truthiness" is nearly as long as the entry for "truth" itself. Why not apply the same standard to every network that expended more hours on Natalie Holloway than it did on topics with far more impact on American lives and futures? Which gets more attention in professional media, birth defects or Brittany? What gets promoted about the candidates, their energy plans, or their preference in beverages?
Keen's contention that the fault of the failing media lies with the amateurs is attractive to those claiming a paycheck to distribute information. It's a theory that's certainly given him plenty of air time and lots of approving nods. But the truth is, the "Web 2.0 movement" that he wants to blame is a bystander in this fight.
The media is working very, very hard to make sure that you don't trust the media. Professionalism defined only by dollars dictates that they chase declining ad revenues through alleys of filth. News outlets have become devoted not to providing stories that are timely and accurate, but to providing proof that their competitors are slanted and unreliable. It's devolved into a battle in which all sides lose. And the biggest loser is the consumer looking for a reliable, authoritative source of information.
But it's certainly nice that Keen has given them somewhere to place the blame while they pick each other apart.