That's News To Me

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

When the Television Critics Association selected The Daily Show on Comedy Central as the outstanding news and information program for 2004, the host of the nightly satire, Jon Stewart, acted mystified. Winner the year before for best achievement in comedy, Stewart worried the award might be a case of mistaken identity.

Outside observers had their own concerns. Were critics engaging in their own frivolity by choosing “The Most Trusted Name in Fake News” (as The Daily Show bills itself) over such nominees as ABC’s Nightline, CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s Frontline? Or has traditional journalism in America reached a crossroads, with novel forms arresting our attention and becoming influential in contemporary affairs?

A cartographer intending to map today’s media world needs to work in pencil and keep a sizable eraser handy. As the communications revolution that began in the 20th century keeps accelerating, the landscape for receiving messages seems unrecognizable from the past. New forms (via cable, satellite and the Internet) compete with ink-on-paper publications and over-the-air broadcasts not only for a person’s time but also for the way that person becomes informed.

Numbers help explain why yesterday’s maps look outdated. Newspaper circulation dropped 1 percent each year from 1990 to 2002. Since 1975, across the country 300 daily papers have gone out of business. According to a 1994 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 58 percent of respondents said they’d read a newspaper the day before. A decade later, the number was down to 42 percent, with those ages 18 to 29 at a mere 23 percent.

Television news, particularly at the major network level, is in sorrier shape. From peak ratings in the late 1960s, the 30-minute nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC have lost 59 percent of their collective audience. Between 1993 and 2004, Pew Center researchers found that regular watching of an evening network report declined from 60 percent of those surveyed to 34 percent.

American population is steadily increasing—203 million in 1970 to 295 million in 2005—but the consumer base of traditional news outlets is contracting. New information alternatives offer such an array of choices it’s often difficult to know where to turn. In the current media world, the concept of "mass"—as in “mass audience” or “mass medium”—loses much of its prior meaning because the environment is so cluttered. Journalistic sources that didn’t exist a few years ago flourish at the expense of long-established outlets.

In the same Pew Center study charting the decline in frequency for reading newspapers and watching television news, 38 percent of Americans say they regularly tune to cable news and 29 percent go to Internet news sites at least three days per week—a rise in online usage from a miniscule 2 percent in 1995. Popularity of news magazines and radio news remained fairly constant over the past decade—but neither form’s current status could be confused with bygone glory days.

Then, of course, there’s The Daily Show. What the public considers news today is vastly different from the era of “mass” outlets. Jon Stewart and his talented sidekicks focus on current subjects and journalism vulnerabilities, including network coverage, producing “fake news” that’s funny and telling. Younger viewers in particular find The Daily Show approach engaging, ranking it highly as an influential source of what they know about contemporary affairs.

That Stewart actually interviews authentic newsmakers means that a viewer is constantly shifting back and forth between satire and some semblance of news. (John Edwards, for instance, announced his candidacy for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination on The Daily Show.) The program takes delight in violating traditional journalistic canons, and in a rapidly changing information arena it wins awards.

Stewart’s appropriation of news for comic purpose is by no means novel. Since the early 19th century, poking fun at topical targets has been a fact of American life. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson all found current affairs grist for their humor mills.

What makes The Daily Show different is not only its bull’s-eye reliance on newsy matters (momentous or momentary) but also its deliberate appearance as a television news production. The program blurs the lines dividing journalism from entertainment. What we’re watching is parody, ersatz news, yet it’s certainly about real news.

To a certain extent, nationally aired radio talk programs share similarities with The Daily Show. In high-tech symbiosis, they live off of what’s being reported as news while the host provides a point of view that combines commentary and crowd-pleasing delivery. A Rush Limbaugh or an Al Franken comes across as an ideological true believer, but an impulse to amuse often animates the words. News becomes part of the personality’s shtick. Is the result journalistic commentary or news-driven entertainment? Again, distinct lines aren’t apparent.

What’s occurring in television and radio also parallels certain practices on the Internet. Traditional news operations co-exist alongside the mushrooming “blogosphere,” with thousands of web sites devoted to personal reactions to contemporary subjects and news coverage itself. This dual relationship expands public discourse. But does a solitary blogger, commenting on the passing scene while relying on traditional news sources, qualify as a journalist? If The Daily Show is fake news, is blogging really “parajournalism” —a subsidiary form inextricably linked to established institutions?

In today’s tangled and thorny media world, older mainstream sources (newspapers, magazines, broadcast networks and the like) compete with newer alternative outlets—and increasing numbers rely on the tributaries rather than the mainstream. Ready access to these new media and their messages is but one reason they’re selected.

Another factor is the precipitous decline in trust and credibility experienced by traditional news organizations in recent years. Back in the 1970s, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite led opinion surveys as “the most trusted figure” in American public life, and newspaper reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were regarded as heroes for their investigation of Watergate. Such admiration didn’t last. In the fall of 2004, a Gallup Poll found just 44 percent of Americans confident of the media’s ability to report news accurately and fairly.

Whether it be Jayson Blair’s fabricated dispatches for The New York Times, the ill-sourced and irresponsible report on CBS’s 60 Minutes about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service or any of the other outrages exposed lately, flagrant unprofessionalism propels dubious citizens to other sources. The beneficiaries of mainstream media malfeasance are often the nontraditional outlets. Bloggers, in particular, can—and do—point out blatant errors, as they did with the 60 Minutes report, and gain followers in the process.

Valuable as alternative sources might be, they pose potential problems. In most cases, serious shoe-leather reporting is secondary to commentary, and the new outlets are highly dependent on a particular point of view. Is it possible to understand different sides of an issue or problem if most of what someone knows originates at a source with a definite slant?

What we know or how we form our opinions is often the consequence of the sources to which we’re exposed as contemporary affairs unfold. The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland released a study in autumn 2003, several months after the United States occupied Iraq, that surveyed the public’s misperceptions about the war and the reasons for waging it. When questioned about three areas—evidence explicitly linking Iraq and al Qaeda, the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, and support of world opinion for American action—there was considerable disparity in people’s understanding that the claims were, in fact, not accurate depending on the respondent’s primary source of news.

According to the study, 80 percent of Fox News viewers believed one or more of the misperceptions—with those watching CBS at 71 percent, ABC at 61 percent and both NBC and CNN at 55 percent. Readers of print sources dipped just below half at 47 percent, while followers of government-supported, commercial-free National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System were at the opposite end of the spectrum at 23 percent.

Of course, the Bush Administration repeated its justification for war (especially the weapons threat and the al Qaeda connection) on an almost daily basis, and those statements received consistent attention throughout the media. If over an extended period half or more of the public misunderstands matters related to war and peace, this situation in itself is reason for alarm—and criticism.

Several months after the Maryland study appeared, both The New York Times and The Washington Post published postmortems, pointing out serious lapses and problems in their pre-invasion coverage. These influential newspapers, along with other outlets, kept transmitting the charge that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. They did not adequately verify the veracity of the charge. Nor did they offer the views of WMD doubters, views that would have conveyed a sense of balance. Especially at a time when governmental policy makes pre-emptive war possible, accurate and comprehensive information is essential for public officials (and for the public at large) to evaluate the merits of taking military action.

As the news and information universe continues to expand, the discriminating citizen will need to be purposefully indiscriminate, actively selecting what’s available as daily communication. One way of minimizing misunderstanding is to scrutinize several sources from varying viewpoints, encompassing traditional and alternative outlets.

Since the 1960s, the phrase “liberal media” has become a cliché —and for many an epithet—to describe mainstream sources. It’s logical that alternative outlets would define themselves differently, distinct in approach and viewpoint. To a striking degree, these new sources challenge the “liberal media” stereotype and present themselves as an informal yet persistent check on established message-makers. Realistically, however, are the premises behind such thinking valid, or is this agenda setting by another name?

Bias of some kind is inherent in human communication, but that doesn’t mean every news organization thinks alike. Viewing the media as a monolith of similarly slanted messages draws into question the independent operations existing at each outlet and the competitive impulses that enliven and inspire newsrooms.

Moreover, it’s difficult to figure out how seriously to take the charge of the mainstream media being liberal when you read statements of identifiable conservatives who’ve talked candidly about the subject. In 1992, Rich Bond, serving then as head of the Republican National Committee, confessed that claims of ideological bias weren’t wholly merited. “There is some strategy to it,” he told a Washington Post reporter. “I’m a coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”

William Kristol, a former official in Republican administrations and currently editor and publisher of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, went further when he acknowledged to The New Yorker in 1995: “I admit it—the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.” A few years later, on CNN, Kristol observed that the media weren’t “as biased and liberal” as many thought. “They’re actually conservative sometimes,” he said.

While Bond and Kristol admit allegations of liberal bias are akin to false cries of wolf, Ari Fleischer, former presidential press secretary to George W. Bush, provides context for understanding media orientation. In his just-published memoir, Taking Heat, Fleischer explains: “Many Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the press are liberals who oppose Republicans and Republican ideas. I think there’s an element of truth to that, but it is complicated, secondary, and often nuanced. More important, the press’s first and most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting. That’s especially the case for the White House press corps.”

As Fleischer suggests, media bias is more complicated than political or ideological preference. Structural, attitudinal and institutional factors come into play —and carry more weight. Above all, mainstream news values a good story—one that’s novel, timely, consequential and engaging, if not compelling. The old chestnut that American journalism tries to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable adds a distinct attitude—civic compassion and public accountability—to the work.

Especially when it comes to power and authority, the establishment media can be probingly skeptical. Naturally critical, these hounds of hypocrisy try to sniff out whether words match deeds and whether a figure’s image conforms, as much as possible, to reality.

For those being pursued, a generalized explanation of journalistic attitude and action can mean little. In the eye of the beholder, who is also the newsmaker, the media themselves are the real problem.

Near the end of his first year as president, Bill Clinton vigorously complained to the magazine Rolling Stone that he didn’t receive “one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.” The two-term Democrat, so despised by conservatives, never found coverage to his liking. That he’d rail against “the knee-jerk liberal press” sounds incongruous, even ironic, but it shows the extent to which the stereotype of bias is more all-purpose accusation than demonstrable fact.

Claims of bias always depend on personal interpretation and point of view. Although those on the right tend to be more organized and vocal in their criticism, many on the left consider the establishment media as profit-obsessed operations of corporate conglomerates. In their opinion, a searching story that draws into question the larger status quo or runs the risk of alienating a sizable audience won’t receive exposure for economic reasons. It’s safer for the sake of the bottom line to carry an abundance of soft news and features—about celebrities, health treatments, fads and the like.

Consistent political partiality across the mainstream media is largely mythical. If traditional journalism is so overwhelmingly slanted and influential, as some rightist critics argue, you’d think that conservative politicians would have more trouble than they do winning elections and that more than 18 percent (according to a 2004 Harris Poll) would identify themselves as liberal.

Be that as it may,representatives of both ends of the political spectrum agree the news reporting about certain social and cultural issues generally reflects liberal orientation. Abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, gun control and the environment tend to receive more positive coverage, and in this sense indirectly help like-minded politicians.

Yet, serious as this situation is, other factors take precedence in explicitly political and governmental reportage. When Monica Lewinsky became a household name overnight in 1998, President Clinton’s political and social views didn’t make an iota of difference in the free-for-all mania to reveal sordid specifics of their relationship.

The debate over bias has become both more complicated and less meaningful in recent years. It’s more complicated because the argument took root during the late 1960s, when only a few nationally significant channels of information were available. Today there are many more sources from which to choose, including some that take sides and don’t aim for impartiality.

The multitude of information voices vying for attention often means a journalistic outlet takes a considered, even calculating approach to set itself apart from competitors. Some newspapers and magazines might encourage prose that features know-it-all, look-at-me “attitude,” with the writer’s viewpoint rivaling the subject treated. Even Associated Press, the 156-year-old wire service noted for its who-what-when-where-why reporting, recently began offering newspapers the choice of two leads for stories. While one emphasizes basic facts in straight news fashion, AP says it wants to offer the second one to “draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means.”

On radio and television, full-throated, at times raucous, discussion frequently replaces any semblance of civil discourse. It’s as though the loudest, most combative voice will stand out from the others—and thus get heard. Although such programs are carried on all-news outlets, the proximity to genuine journalism is remote. Part personal prejudice, part ego gratification, heat rather than light usually results.

With the media multiplying like kudzu and the mainstream shrinking, there might seem less at stake in the controversy over bias. In an era of deep political divisions, however, messengers carrying political messages are as vulnerable to criticism as partisan politicians. Indeed, the media bias debate feeds political polarization in the United States by making the public suspicious of what they read, see and hear from the left, right and center.

Consider the titles of recent books about the media, several of which became national bestsellers: Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg; Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right by Ann Coulter; What Liberal Media? The Truth About BIAS and the News by Eric Alterman; Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken; Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, by Joe Conason; and Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media by L. Brent Bozell III.

With all the allegations about lying, bias and distortion, it’s difficult to see how anything resembling truth could ever emerge. One person’s polluted channel for information is another’s invaluable source—and the debate is frequently far from polite. In Slander, Coulter remarks: “Journalism is war by other means.” That seems a restrictive definition, but the intellectual issue isn’t exactly joined when Franken in his book dismisses Coulter as a “nutcase.” Rather than trying to provoke thought, these books provide poison-tipped ammunition for like-minded believers. That they sell so well speaks volumes about entrenched, ideological opinions and fervor, daily stoked, that won’t easily fade.

Although the media bias debate (in books, articles, talk shows and elsewhere) often appears as a sideshow to the center-ring argument between conservatives and liberals over the nation’s direction and political issues, it’s taking place as the public tries to figure out how best to navigate through all the available news and information.

In this new milieu, the mainstream media no longer exert the hold they once did. Other voices are being heard, and some of those voices critique media performance and perceived slanting for whatever motivation.

Fox News Channel might promote “fair and balanced” news coverage, but that slogan is about as truthful and self-serving as the one published on every edition of The New York Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Fox News found its niche by defining its messages differently from others in TV journalism. Begun in 1996 and inspired in part by the success of talk-radio, the channel wasn’t afraid to be perceived as having a point of view. That style attracted viewers, propelling Fox News into the lead of cable news organizations. Significantly, during the 2004 Republican National Convention, Fox News had a larger audience than any of the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and over three times the viewership of either MSNBC or CNN. By taking a point of view, the channel is building a following that’s worth watching on its own.

To what extent does the success of Fox signal a return to a partisan press in America? In the nation’s early years, newspapers made no effort to be neutral, a practice that continues in Britain, Europe and elsewhere. If the news audience expects a particular slant, charges of bias become meaningless. This, however, comes at the expense of not learning certain aspects of a story or never hearing a contrary opinion about a subject.

With ideologically oriented information, the content has a predictability that puts it in the category of preaching to an already assembled and faithful choir. What’s reported might introduce new information, but the larger objective involves reinforcing someone’s viewpoint and opinions. The approach also tends to deepen political and social divisions—and to stifle more comprehensive inquiry. Instead of fostering fuller understanding, sides are taken, fingers are pointed and blame is assessed.

What complicates any discussion of today’s media environment in the United States is the variety of different messages circulating at a given time. A newspaper, for example, might try to present its reportage with (in Irish writer and statesman Edmund Burke’s phrase) “the cold neutrality of an impartial judge,” but commentary columns and editorials frequently make readers think they detect a distinct perspective. In news magazines and on broadcast media, analysis and interpretation often seem to mingle with personal opinion. Trying to keep types of journalism and different sources straight becomes difficult for the public.

Most media don’t take enough care to explain their work or to make the necessary distinctions among different journalistic forms. How many faithfully follow the famous dictum “fact is sacred, opinion is free”? Compounding the problem are the new, alternative sources of information that rely on the news for their content but follow their own agendas and prejudices. In this increasingly crowded and noisy arena, distinguishing between journalism and entertainment or journalism and “parajournalism” can be difficult. There are no bright, bold lines marking off balanced, complete reporting (of just-the-facts school) from selective, slanted opinion offerings.

To be sure, a citizen’s access to a wide range of fact and opinion has never been greater. For example, through cable outlets (including C-SPAN) and Internet sites, it’s now relatively easy to watch or read the entirety of speeches, news conferences and other presentations, allowing someone to evaluate and judge a source without outside interference.

But that admirably independent approach now openly competes with its opposite: Point-of-view reporting and analysis that originates with an agenda or purpose. These sources can be valuable—bloggers, say, can keep a story alive by investigating it from other angles and by pushing the traditional media to correct an original account —but the trick is to avoid what media theorists call “information segregation.”

When this happens, people rely on outlets with which they already agree. They don’t seek contrasting information. This method of media selection—and personal bias—results in the possibility of never understanding an issue as completely as possible or even very well.

Different technologies now make it possible to receive personally designed, tailor-made collections of reportage, analysis and commentary that observers have dubbed “The Daily Me.” But if the “Me” too narrowly defines the information provided—a preponderance of entertainment or sports news, political information from one perspective, economic or business reports but little else—there’s the danger of not receiving a thorough, reliable picture of America or the world.

The Daily Show and “The Daily Me” challenge conventional thinking about news, but they symbolize our times and future— with definitions changing, traditions ending, lines blurring. With the media world teeming with choice, our relationship to it will be radically different, as we try to deal with the endless welter of messages. “Keeping up” with contemporary affairs (a civic notion of an earlier era with far fewer sources) will demand a conscious effort of constant scrutiny. The age-old worry over gaining access to information is over. Now it’s a matter of selection and attention—and assuming new obligations of 21st-century citizenship.

Robert Schmuhl is professor of American studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at Notre Dame.