January 27, 2006
Big Media, Big Problems

By Tom Bevan

In what is becoming a fairly regular occurrence, this week turned out to be another bad week for big media.

On one coast, Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times wrote the sort of career-crippling column most writers dread – setting off a firestorm by saying he does not support U.S. troops – and managed to compound the offense by making his point with bad humor.

Equally as bad as Stein writing the column (and much worse for the paper’s brand and The Tribune Co.’s shareholders) was the decision by editorial page editor Andres Martinez to print it. Stein admitted, during the process of being shredded in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, that Martinez had edited the column with Stein the night before it ran and voiced no objections to either the tone or the content.

On the other coast, the New York Times spent its rapidly dwindling editorial capital trying to browbeat Senate Democrats into blocking a Supreme Court nominee who is unquestionably qualified for the job. No matter that this would entail the first filibuster of a majority supported nominee in the history of the country, or that according to the most recent Gallup poll Americans believe Alito should be confirmed by close to a 2-1 margin.

Even though both these examples come from the editorial pages of big, blue-state papers - places where even the most liberal opinions are perfectly acceptable, if not expected - they show how fantastically out of touch both these institutions continue to be from large portions of the rest of the country.

They also demonstrate one of the ironies of the new media age: both of these papers are now read in greater than ever numbers thanks to the Internet, but the additional exposure of the heavy liberal slant in the papers' op-ed pages, and to a lesser degree in their news coverage, has eroded their credibility rather than enhanced it.

Combined with the downward spiral in both offline advertising revenues and circulation trends, you can see the trouble big media is in. If future profitability rests with online advertising, these papers are going to continue to have difficulty competing in a vast national marketplace where millions of readers and viewers now have both the options and the ideological motivation to go elsewhere for news and commentary. We’ve seen this trend happening for some time.

The situation appears to be getting worse, however, because big media’s problems are no longer confined to gripes of bias from the right. It is also coming under increasing assault from the left.

Two weeks ago the Washington Post decided to shut down the comments section on one of its blogs after liberals inundated it with “abusive” and “obscene” attacks on ombudsman (or ombudswoman, as the case may be) Deborah Howell after she wrote that Jack Abramoff “had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.”

This, of course, is technically incorrect: Abramoff did not personally give campaign money to Democrats. But his Indian tribe clients clearly did - and the Post has documents showing those contributions were directed explicitly by Abramoff. Howell set the record straight in a column the following week, but she was clearly shocked at being attacked by the left as a “paid liar” and “right-wing whore” for committing what amounted to a journalistic misdemeanor.

This week, lefty blogs laid siege to Chris Matthews for daring to suggest similarities between the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and Michael Moore. Tim Russert also got raked over the virtual coals for his line of questioning with Senator Barack Obama on a recent episode of Meet The Press.

While little more than a nuisance at the moment, the aggressive hostility displayed by hard-left liberals demanding “more balanced” coverage from big media is a potentially ominous sign. The mainstream press, which already leans to the left, can’t afford to lose its appeal to such a core constituency. But lurching further to the left will only alienate more readers and more viewers living between the coasts, significantly impeding the ability of large media outlets to appeal to a broad national audience.

In other words, big media has big problems. The veil of “objectivity” in the press has been pulled back over the last few years, and the result has been a massive shift in the media landscape. Audiences are more polarized, markets are more segmented, and news consumption is no longer a strictly passive enterprise. These trends are almost certain to continue, what is uncertain is how big media will deal with them.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.

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