It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, the Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?
I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they really don't care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what actually happened. I don't think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.
Every year, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases a huge report called "The State of the News Media," and this year's installment contains some surprising results, far beyond what you'd expect about declining newspaper revenues and the generalized slow death of journalism (though there's plenty of that). In particular, television news is undergoing some rapid changes, most of which are driven by finances and many of which look seriously problematic.
Let's start with local TV news (we'll get to cable in a moment)...
Four years ago, Tucker Carlson went before the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and told them that instead of creating more media forums to talk to each other about what a bunch of jerks liberals are, they ought to nurture outlets that actually report news, with a commitment to accuracy. For his trouble he was booed vigorously, and I guess he learned his lesson about what conservatives are interested in, because instead of creating a newsgathering organization he created the Daily Caller. I'm sure it's doing quite well with it's target audience, and I couldn't help but think about Carlson upon seeing that Erick Erickson, proprietor of RedState.com and CNN talking mouth, issued a plea to conservatives to come work for him and actually do journalism. First though, he identified the problem:
I know we've all been preoccupied with that dude who's going to be the Republican veep candidate when the convention rolls around. But a few lines down, there's been some sweet news.
In a first, we now have the very first openly gay brigadier general in the army. New general Tammy S. Smith had her wife Tracey Hepner pin the medal on in the ceremony. Just the thought of it makes me feel all quavery. How sweet is that? (Thanks to Rex Wockner for bringing this to my attention.) Here are some relevant quotes from The New York Times article about it:
I can’t say for sure when it happened—it was after Barack Obama’s swearing-in yet before Keith Olbermann got suspended for giving money to Democrats—but at some point it began dawning on people that the face of MSNBC was Rachel Maddow. Certainly her bosses thought so. Not only did she have her own prime-time show but she also began landing the gigs traditionally reserved for a network’s Grand Poo-Bah, in particular, anchoring election-night coverage.
While I was in the car yesterday I turned to a conservative talk radio station, which I recommend all liberals do from time to time. The host, whom I didn't recognize, brought up some innocuous piece of news reporting that appeared in the Politico. As you know if you care about these things, the Politico is a complicated media entity. On one hand, they employ a lot of reporters and they sometimes break interesting stories. On the other hand, they're almost a parody of the inside dope-obsessed Washington media, which finds the question of whether Eric Cantor's press secretary and John Boehner's press secretary are feuding far more compelling than, say, the question of what effects cuts in Medicaid would have on struggling Americans.
After Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., last year, Rachel Maddow convinced Stewart to sit down with her for over an hour to discuss politics and the media. She dedicated her entire show that night to the interview. I don't see how anyone could have come away from that interview thinking Maddow had not given serious thought to the state of the media today and her own role in it.
So you can imagine my astonishment when The New Republic listed Maddow on their list of Washington's 10 "over-rated thinkers." But sure enough, alongside Newt Gingrich and Ayn Rand, there she was:
Over at Transom, a site showcasing interesting things going on in public radio, Ira Glassexplains what makes Radiolab such a terrific program, which is kind of like having Ted Williams explain to you what makes Joe DiMaggio a great hitter. Here he is talking about a one-minute introduction to a segment on the program, particularly the way the co-hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, talk to each other:
Remember Glenn Beck? For a while there he was the most talked-about media figure in the country, his mug shouting from magazine covers as he channeled the particular brand of crazy that had seized the Republican party. His unhinged conspiracy theories and venomous hatred for Barack Obama were perfectly in tune with what a significant portion of the country was feeling; his books shot up the best-seller list, his Fox News show got great ratings, and everyone was talking about him.
My profile of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley's Poverty Tour will be in the print edition of next month's print edition Prospect, but I was having a conversation with Jamelle yesterday that reminded me of a portion of the interview with West I thought was interesting but didn't make it into the final piece.
Comedian Steve Harvey has words with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West:
The Original King of Comedy, Family Feud host and suit designer didn't stop there. After reading Smiley's request that Obama join him for "a roundtable for two or three days on poverty," Harvey joked, "Who in the hell got 2-3 days for your ass? I ain't got time to sit down with your monkey behind for two, three days, let alone the President of the United States. We got three wars going on, the economy crashing and we going to sit down with Tavis ass for three days?"
My column today is about the fact that when you give regular people the opportunity to question politicians in various "town hall" type settings, they often do a better job than journalists. Since the GOP primary debate season will soon begin, I thought it might be good to remind ourselves of what happened four years ago.