Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Other Reason the Old Media is Dying

It's well known that the web has eaten into print circulation and advertising for newspapers and that cable news channels and the web have given consumers far more choices for news than the network options. But that's only part of the equation. The other is that the mainstream media just isn't very good at its job. Let's take a relatively benign example.

In Saturday's New York Times, writer Adam Nagourney writes an article entitled: "If White House Is Her Goal, Palin’s Route Is Risky". The purpose of the article was to assess Palin's chances of being elected president now that she's resigned from being Governor of Alaska.

Nagourney quotes a political strategist, a former White House political director and a former McCain adviser (among others) to analyze her prospects. Some think it's possible she can regroup, some think it'll be hard for her to expand her base, but nowhere in the article is there any mention that this woman *should not be* and *should never have been* a serious candidate for any government office. That is not merely my view; it's a fact. Whether I am qualified to play the oboe in the London Philharmonic or quarterback for the New York Jets is not merely a matter of opinion. Even if many people believe I would be great at both, it's simply, factually untrue. Andrew Sullivan has exhaustively documented why that's the case, and Palin herself validated Sullivan's views with this resignation speech, though they hardly required validating following the distastrous Katie Couric interview last fall.

But my point isn't to talk about Palin, but about how a New York Times front page article can analyze Palin's chances for the presidency without ever mentioning how disastrous it would be. It's like commenting on a football team's play calling when it's down 35 points in the fourth quarter. "It's second and six, and I think you'll see a little play action here, with the defense expecting a run." It's 35-0 - no one cares what kind of play they call! Analyzing the strategy without acknowledging the absurd context reveals you have no idea what's going on. I'll assume that Nagourney does realize what Palin is, but feels he must pretend she might one day be a legitimate presidential hopeful so as not to seem overly partisan or to inject his opinion into it. But by pretending that, he badly insults the intelligence of his readers. NFL announcers, many of whom are not particularly good at their jobs, either, would never analyze the play calling in that way during the fourth quarter of a blowout game. Even the worst of them have more respect than that for the audience. If there's a blowout going on, that fact is not somehow ignored because fans of the team will be upset if it were acknowledged.

As a result, newspapers and news channels which also operate under this policy of pretending obvious facts that make moot their whole analysis don't exist, are not offering compelling content. You can't stop technological progress, and you can't make some people pay for a print product that's available for free online, but you can offer useful content. And you can also communicate implicitly to your readers what you think of them. Writing columns about Palin's chances of a future run at the White House without acknowledging how wrong she is for the job, is horribly patronizing.

The crisis in the news business is not just one of solvency, but one of legitimacy. How can we possibly be expected to tune into sources that refuse to acknowledge the most pertinent facts? Until the MSM stops being afraid to offend or be criticized, they'll lose readers not only to new technologies, but also because most people really, desperately want to be told the truth.

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