Monday, April 8, 2013

Requiem for the Mainstream Media

Frank Rich says it well—he often does—but he only tells half the story.

In his New York Magazine requiem for the mainstream media, he reports that the mainstream media has been losing money, readers and staff at an alarming rate… to the point where Rich reasonably fears for the survival of iconic brands like The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Newsweek has already ceased print publication and Time is on life support.

Yet, Rich fails to tell the other side of the story: whatever its financial condition, the mainstream media continues to exercise outsized influence on American culture and political debate.

It succeeded in putting Barack Obama in the White House, twice. It is already hard at work on the Hillary campaign.

When it comes to influence, the left-leaning media has been winning out over more conservative media outlets. Obviously conservative publications have not been doing a very good job of defending their ideas. If they do not know how to fight back, it’s time they learned.

As the mainstream media’s financial fortunes decline it exercises more and more political and cultural influence. If your ship is going down why not drag others down with you.

However well Rich said it, Dickens said it better. He was not talking about the media but his opening to A Tale of Two Cities applies perfectly to the current state of the mainstream media:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….

In many ways, it’s the story of today’s mainstream media.

Unfortunately, Rich can do no better than to offer the conventional explanation for the current state of the media: the internet and social media did it in.

In his narrative, no sooner had the Times recovered from Judith Miller’s pre- Iraq War reports about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction than it was hit with a double whammy: the Great Recession and the rise of social media.

Note how clever Rich is. He acknowledges that the Times slants the news, but declares that its problem has been that it slants too far to the right..

And he blames it all of Judith Miller, for whom he seems to hold a special animus. The notion that the Times ever lost readership because of Judith Miller is risible. Why not mention that orgy of coverage of Abu Ghraib or the paper's bias against Israel?

Several years before the Iraq War, I was talking with someone who, at the time, was working at the New York Times. We were comparing the Times and the Wall Street Journal when this man, whose politics were  to the left of the Times, interjected by quoting one of his intellectual heroes.

He opined: “As Chomsky said, with the Journal at least you can trust the facts.”

I have not been able to verify that Chomsky said it, but it is true that newspapers that are addressed to people who will use the information to make decisions are held to different standards than are papers whose main purpose is to entertain and propagandize.

When you are using information to conduct your business you will not long survive by relying on a newspaper that skews the facts as often as the Times does.

Rich does not emphasize the point, but while Times and the Washington Post are fighting for their lives, but the Wall Street Journal and The Economist and the Financial Times are profitable. Could it be that they give you reliable information and do not use their news columns to tell you what you should think.

They are only marginally profitable, but they are not selling off assets and laying off staff to stay in the black.

It seems also to be true that business publications have had a better grasp of the business of publishing. The Journal never gave away content. It has always had a pay wall.

The Times and other publications have suffered from what Rich correctly calls a “hippie” attitude of giving it away for free. Now they have a pay wall, but they are competing with many news sources that do not.

Hopefully, I have offered a fair and balanced appraisal of Rich’s article. To be fairer and more balanced I will emphasize Rich is writing about the eclipse of the print media as a business model.

Yet, in the midst of his requiem he fails to mention the one modern media outlet that has, internet or not, been a rousing financial success. While the mainstream media is dying before our eyes, Fox News has been, as they say, printing money. Profit estimates for Fox News are approaching a billion dollars a year.

Despite or perhaps because of its profitability, Fox News is constantly vilified in the mainstream media. It can make all the money it wants, but the dying mainstream media has made it a priority to prevent Fox from exercising any ideological or cultural influence.

Like any news organization, Fox News has two functions: to report and to comment. Most of the time it makes every effort to separate the two. Shepard Smith does not offer commentary. Neither does Bret Baier.

And yet, Fox News is constantly excoriated as a propaganda organ, to the point that you will have difficulty citing it as a source of information. Rich does not attack Fox by name, but he does so by maligning contributor Judith Miller, without ever mentioning who she works for. Left thinking people do not need to be told. 

If the mainstream media is dying, then what is the solution to its financial distress? Rich suggests that these publications might be bought up by liberal billionaires who do not, like Rupert Murdoch with The New York Post, care whether or not they are making money.

If that doesn’t work, their supporters will shift to plan B.

They will argue that these publications are of such transcendent national interest that they need to be bailed out by the government. If Michael Bloomberg or Google does not want The New York Times, next stop: NPR.


Anonymous said...

"Yet, in the midst of his requiem he fails to mention the one modern media outlet that has, internet or not, been a rousing financial success. While the mainstream media is dying before our eyes, Fox News has been, as they say, printing money."

Why would he? As you just point out right above this, he is talking about the eclipse of PRINT media. Fox News Network is not print media. To imply that Fox is special because it has succeeded "internet or not" is nonsensical and inapplicable to his argument.

It is easy to compare the "rousing" sucess of Fox News (or ANY tv show, really) to the decline of PRINT media like the NY Times; the more appropriate comparison is to MSNBC, obviously, or CNN. Can you still then say it is the ONE television news network to be a financial success?

Just stating the obvious here.

Dennis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stuart Schneiderman said...

Ostensibly, Rich is writing about the print media, as I mentioned. But he also includes television news under the heading of old media.

If it wasn't clear enough, here are a few quotes:

He said this, too:

"You cannot work at any old-media organization, print or television, without having many friends and former colleagues who are seeking work, often outside the news business."

And this:

"The Times has a new CEO, bustling moneymaking schemes, and, soon, a retooled website, but anyone who says he knows how the story will turn out, whether there or at The Wall Street Journal or at NBC News or at this or any other print magazine, is kidding himself."

Describing David Halberstam's book, Rich mentions these four media outlets:

"...four organizations then considered to be serious competitors, if not exactly peers, of the Times: CBS, Time Inc., the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times."

And this:

"But as a new Pew “State of the News Media” study finds, even crime news is in decline on local television these days, no doubt because it requires more reporters than the staples that now dominate: weather and traffic."

And this:

"An essential step to welcoming change is to stop romanticizing what came before. That includes fantasies about the “golden age” of twentieth-century television. Superficial as the network evening newscasts may be now, they are no more so than the halcyon fifteen-minute evening newscasts presided over by Chet Huntley and David ­Brinkley. As for the sainted Edward R. Murrow, he would have been right at home on 60 Minutes. He didn’t just take on Joe ­McCarthy and the plight of migrant workers but conducted celebrity interviews in which he lobbed softballs at Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liberace."

Anonymous said...

Good riddance. All the leftists want us to do is read poetry while riding a train, eating free-range tofu and admiring the windmill-covered landscape. If you keep telling your customers that their immutable characteristics define them, their values are archaic, their money ill-gotten, and their sensibilities superstitious... you'll probably lose those customers. Never was so much arrogance hoarded by so few. Cry me a river...


Anonymous said...

Well, having read his article, I still don't think you can conclude from it a big slight against Fox News. He doesn't mention MSNBC, either. If anything, he seems to lump "cable news" together (except CNN) as part of the "new" vs. the "old" media.

Sam L. said...

The legacy media still play a big part because there is no similarly sized opposing media--they have the installed equipment. Also, they see their decline, and are shouting louder to cover it up. As Glenn Reynolds says, this will work until it doesn't. (May the day come soon!)

Rich says Jayson Blair was bad enough, but Judy supporting BUSH!!!111!! was just completely outside the pale!

"A clean slate of leaders, uncharacteristically humble circumspection, hard work, and a new regimen of checks and balances restored the paper’s internal equilibrium and external reputation." Riiiiiiiiiiiiight.

Sorry, but his page one was as far as I could get.

Anonymous said...

The mainstream media delusion is total. Their decline is unstoppable. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion, but this one is fun!