December 6, 2004
Wither The Mainstream Media?
By William Bennett

In many ways—especially from the views of Blackrock, 30 Rock, and Times Square —President George W. Bush should not have been re-elected: the economy was in less than stellar shape; images of terrorism and death from Iraq flooded the news coverage; civilians were being kidnapped and beheaded; President Bush did not acquit himself well in the presidential debates; and Osama bin Laden gave us a long-awaited (and, in some cases, long-unexpected) proof-of-life days before the election. And, yet, instead of George W. Bush packing up his office this December and January, Dan Rather announced that he will be packing up his, Tom Brokaw has delivered his last broadcast, and the New York Times is, well, one wonders….

What happened? Many things, from the values of rural Kansas proving more widespread than the values of urban Massachusetts, to the precedent that presidents are not voted out of office during war-time. But there is something more, and it has to do with the continuing decline of the mainstream media that has been taking place concomitantly with the rise of a new media; a media that is not confined to one specific headquarters or address, a media that—while more diverse in race, gender, religion, and politics than the mainstream headquarters’ personnel—shares the common address suffixes dot com, dot org, dot net and AM. I am writing of the Internet combined with talk-radio.

New Websites with different news and opinion sources emerged over the past few years, sites with names like Powerline, Littlegreenfootballs, HughHewitt.com, and The Corner. They are run by attorneys, professors, former attorneys, former professors, journalists, scholars, and smart, seemingly ordinary citizens, uncrowned by tenure committees, major networks, or print newspapers. And the Dan Rathers of the world had no idea what they were or what their power could do. Many elites are just now beginning to pay attention.

When Dan Rather’s pre-election story (billed as a “scoop”) “proving” that George W. Bush deliberately avoided Vietnam service aired, it took only a matter of hours to determine something was very wrong with that story—not morally wrong, factually wrong. Indeed, as the Websites were asking questions CBS producers should have asked, Dan Rather was sticking to his story—to the point of stating, over a week after his original broadcast, “If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story.” “Earth to Dan Rather,” one “blogger” wrote, “the story has been broken.” And indeed it had been. Dan Rather just did not know it. But the American people did.

When the New York Times reported a “scoop” even closer to the election, that the Administration had been irresponsible with guarding enemy weapons caches in Iraq, the “blogosphere” debunked that possibility as well—or at the very minimum, raised the kind of questions about that story (questions relating to feasibility, time frames, witness accounts, sourcing) that mainstream editors used to raise before going to print. When the John Kerry campaign, along with the candidate himself, issued talking points that, under President Bush, the US was suffering the “greatest job loss since the Great Depression,” factcheck.org analyzed the claim and discovered it “wrong” and “ludicrous.”

When Democrats promoted the “failures” and “disasters” in Iraq, the blogosphere issued first hand accounts and historical perspectives that debunked such charges; when the Democratic party adopted the mantra that al-Qaeda had nothing to do with Iraq, the blogosphere quoted chapter and verse from the Senate Intelligence Committee Report detailing page after page showing just the opposite—and that one John Edwards signed that Report.

Sites like RealClearPolitics.com promulgated op-eds from writers and observers that do not usually get on the nightly news or major op-ed pages but do usually have better information than those with political axes to grind. Those writers and observers got their messages out on the Web and on AM talk-radio, “the most powerful medium in the world” according to Yale University’s David Gelernter.

After the election, many statistics emerged. Perhaps the most interesting do not have to do with the mere shifts in the Catholic, Jewish, Black, or Hispanic votes. But, rather, why those shifts took place. Those shifts took place in part because of these statistics from the Pew Research Center: 41% voters say they got at least some of their news about the 2004 election online. Further, 21% relied on the Internet for most of their election news, nearly double the number in 2000. Yes, people cared about something more than job losses (as Ohio, which may have lost more jobs than any other state in the last four years, proved)—but the information about the context of the job losses, as well as the “something more,” came from places other than the mainstream media.

Does the Internet have its share of problems? Of course. The first question asked of Internet pioneer Matt Drudge when he spoke at the National Press Club in 1998 was, “[H]ow does it advance the cause of democracy and of social good to report unfounded allegations?” He detailed several then-current failures in reporting by the mainstream media, failures that led to reporters being fired, and libel judgments being paid. It is six years later and the Internet has grown, gossip and unfounded allegations have grown with it—but the growth of “unfounded allegations” is at least as much a problem for the mainstream media as it is for the Internet. The lesson is an age-old one that has come back to the fore: citizens need to do their homework. They need to check sources, they need to verify information, they need to rely on their own resources and those of experts they trust—they cannot rely on just one source of information and on an expert force-fed to them by one news organization or anchor.

The value of the blogosphere, combined with talk-radio, teaches another lesson: the experts can often be wrong—not just about facts but about what people care about, and even who’s in charge. Seven months ago, I started a nationally syndicated radio show and only recently learned something very valuable. I began the top of my show two weeks ago with a menu of news items (as I always do), and I was prepared to discuss them, as well as a recent speech I had given on the meaning of the “moral values” vote in the 2004 election. I opened the phone lines and every single call—every single one—was about the Marine in Fallujah who had shot an Iraqi in a mosque, a news item I did not read in my opening menu of news. We even had calls from attorneys with Uniform Code of Military Justice experience offering up their pro-bono aid to this Marine. The lesson: the American people often care about something different, and know something more, than what the news providers want to provide or think the American people should care about. In this case, my audience wanted to make sure our Marine was taken care of before we started analyzing the Administration’s agenda, or the latest round of talks between Iran and the IAEA.

People now get their news and opinion on the Internet and relay it to talk radio. They then think about it, research it further, and discuss it on the Internet, in email, and in the national conversations that take place on shows like mine all the time—shows that cannot simply be marginalized as “right wing radio,” because they are not “right wing.” Some are, in part, national dialogues. Yes there is right wing radio, and yes there is left wing radio but there is radio of another sort too, and too few elites have the first clue about what it is or what is happening there.

Empowered, the people are changing talk radio. Speaking as a host of a three-hour talk show, it is evident that the public, which is checking assertions of fact as they are being made, is not sitting back and merely absorbing pontification. On talk radio, the lecture is fading, and it is being replaced by the interactive national seminar, where callers inform the host and audience as much as the host is informing listeners.

This new media makes news, national priorities, and fact-checking a much more democratic thing, giving all consumers of news—all citizens—a new birthright to their democracy and to their citizenship. It empowers all of us with the ability to find the truth of a story or a claim, to make judgments rather than have judgments made for us. I do not know if the mainstream media will adapt to their new competition but it is my hope that they at least understand who their new competition is. It is not a new multinational corporation, a stronger watt antenna, or a new satellite. It is the conglomerate of the American people, a busy and curious people, who have now been emboldened to take back the power of the news, opinions, and facts they choose to read, hear, and prioritize. It is a conglomerate that is more diverse, more experienced, and smarter than the Big Three or the Old Gray Lady. It is growing and getting better all the time because more citizens are turning to it, taking responsibility for it, and challenging themselves and others with it. It is a very bottom up process, a very democratic process. This new media gives us all not only more and better information but more and better democracy. In the end, it is a very American thing.

William J. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show Bill Bennett’s Morning in America and the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

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