Rage Against the MSMachine
The Administration's attack on the press as an institution is part of its broader political strategy. "The Bush forces went after the press because they went after every check and balance on executive power," says New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. "Bush intuitively understands that every force that is trying to document facts on the ground is in the way of their project." As the past six years have made clear, the failure of the mainstream press to fight back has had serious consequences for the American people.
Progressives therefore face a more difficult challenge than the one confronting conservative media-bashers: to advocate for a strong independent press able to do its job effectively and without partisan favor, while pushing its members to represent progressive issues and views. What this suggests is that in the area of media activism, borrowing from the Republican playbook--a favored strategy among progressive leaders these days--may not be quite as easy or desirable.
There is no doubt that bloggers have made media criticism matter. Their aggressive and lightning-quick fact-checking skills expose the shoddy reporting, shallow prognosticating and knee-jerk pro-establishment bias that are the hallmarks of mainstream coverage these days. They've helped reintroduce Big Media and its members to the pesky concept of "accountability": that freedom of the press carries with it the burden of responsible journalism.
Blogs have also powered a dramatic transformation in the very creation of public knowledge. The reader no longer has to wait for some kindly editor to publish her letter or issue a correction. An article in the newspaper or segment on a TV news show is now merely the first step in a broader, richer and more inclusive online debate. "The democratizing of knowledge and information and criticism is always a good thing. The ability of people to point out mistakes and balance inaccuracies is great, even if it is done in a meanspirited way," says New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai. "I hope that eventually it's going to make the media more responsive and responsible about the mistakes that we make."
But despite the progressive netroots' intense focus on the media--which Media Matters's Jamison Foser recently described as "the defining issue of our time"--there is no clear sense of exactly what's wrong with the media system. Smart, perceptive, well-meaning bloggers can outline at length and in great detail the flaws in press coverage, but they can't say why the coverage is so fatally flawed. "I don't know where it's coming from," says FireDogLake blogger Christy Hardin Smith, "and I really don't know what it would take to support good journalism."
Even a media maven like Paul Waldman--who founded the now-defunct online magazine The Gadflyer and is a senior fellow at Media Matters--sounds a little unsure: "I don't think the left has yet defined what its problem with the media is." Various bloggers subscribe to a number of theories. The more popular among them claim that reporters are privileged members of the "cocktail weenie circuit"; afraid of the Republicans; slaves to the corporate fat cats who pay their salaries; or all of the above.
At least part of the rhetoric is less about the press itself than about bolstering the bloggers' self-identity as outsiders, which offers the emotional comfort of victimhood. "The notion of the press being in the pocket of the Bush Administration is definitely overdrawn, but it feels good," says Rosen. "This way you can feel even more marginalized."