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Is the Media a 'Feral Beast'?

By Daniel Henninger

In America, presidents end speeches with, "God bless you." In the U.K. last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair ended a big speech with: "I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters." Mr. Blair's subject was the media.

Rubbished it was.

Simon Jenkins of the Sunday Times smashed a bottle of printer's bile against the wall and dumped the following shards on Mr. Blair's head: Only by "dismantling their footling reputations and hounding them from pillar to post will we ever get a noose round their necks." "They" are the British political class and "we" the British press.

With a few exceptions, the fellows around London's newsrooms averred that the prime minister's criticism was, yes, rubbish. Perhaps the trashing flowed from the talk's most quoted line, that the media today is at times a "feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits."

In my experience, no subject triggers longer conversations around the U.S. now than "the media." People are fascinated by what's happening to newspapers, the role of cable TV and, of course, the Web. Most people I talk to about this are information junkies, a human compulsion that made newspapers possible. They know that technology is bending the information status quo and want to talk about whether the direction of change is for better or worse.

Mr. Blair said his subject was "how politics is reported" in the Internet age. Yes, the British and American media are distinct creatures, but I found Mr. Blair's comments sufficiently provoking on an important subject to warrant an airing here in the U.S.

Deep wells of energy are emptied daily in political or professional life now, says Mr. Blair, "coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points it literally overwhelms. Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today--business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organizations--and they will tell you the same." He says, "Any public service leader . . . will tell you not that they mind the criticism, but they have become totally demoralized by the completely unbalanced nature of it."

Mr. Blair's complaint about balance appears not to be about political bias, the normal media beef of American conservatives. Mr. Blair is a Laborite. Instead, Tony Blair seems to believe the media has become mostly melodrama: "Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life's usual grays are almost entirely absent. 'Some good, some bad'; 'some things going right, some going wrong.' These are concepts alien to much of today's reporting. It is a triumph or a disaster. A problem is a crisis. A setback is a policy in tatters."

In place of life's grays, he says, we now get political blood: "Attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to make an error, it has to be venal, conspiratorial. Watergate was a great piece of journalism, but there is a Ph.D. thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up. What creates cynicism is not mistakes, it is allegations of misconduct."

He attributes this change to the decline of what we call "straight" reporting and the rise of analysis or commentary in news columns, which most newspaper people will acknowledge, arguing that readers get straight news today from the Web.

But Mr. Blair says that commentary on the news has become "more important than the news itself." If I understand him correctly, he thinks this results in the reader or viewer having to choose between competing versions of reality: "What matters is not what [one's words] mean, but what they can be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy, rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended."

Comment, he says, "is a perfectly respectable part of journalism, but it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today, not merely elides the two, but does so now as a matter of course. It is routine."

Mr. Blair claims that the "relationship" between the media and public life is "damaged" and "requires repair." The damage, he says, "saps the country's confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions."

The British press dismissed all this as the last whine of a master spinmeister. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that Mr. Blair raised the possibility of a new U.K. regulatory regime, a nonstarter in First Amendment America.

The one point Mr. Blair made, which no pressie can refute, is that newspaper market share, both circulation and advertising, is in decline. Many in the press argue this is wholly the result of the Internet invader and has nothing to do with Mr. Blair's criticisms. Some may yet ride the belief that the state of American journalism is impeccable all the way to the basement.

Mr. Blair coined a new word in his speech: "viewspaper." Most reporters here will reject this term, arguing that what they do now is "analysis," not views. Whatever. Readers, a k a circulation, will be the final judges of all this.

Let's assume that straight news has been commoditized and relegated to the two or three paragraphs people are willing to read on the Web. Perhaps in an updated version of "A Canticle for Leibowitz" some monastic order will emerge in the post-factual world to preserve facts-only reporting smuggled around by hand on mimeographed sheets of paper. And let's assume that what's left for newspapers to offer the dwindling brotherhood of "readers" is interpretation, analysis, spin or bias. At bottom, it's all going to be someone's opinion, so ultimately people may simply have to decide whose opinions they find congenial, reliable or thought-provoking.

Tony Blair's right about one thing: Times change. The jury is still out on whether our politics will be better or worse if no one can agree on what any given public problem is because no one knows what the basic facts are, beyond the words in a Web site's headline. Possibly we'll elect better presidents and politicians if we're thrown back on gut feeling and whatever our common sense can intuit from this weird new information ether. Let's just hope civil engineers don't start building suspension bridges on this basis.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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