January 27, 2006
Big Media, Big Problems
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.
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