MSM, Heal Thyself

A few days ago, Jay Rosen of New York University and the inestimable Pressthink weblog asked me the following question, in the context of a rather heated back-and-forth between mostly-conservative bloggers and representatives of the mainstream media, or MSM:

Is the point to have a dialogue with the MSM or cause its destruction?

Jay’s was a very fair and serious question, and it deserved a serious answer. What I’m interested in is not destruction, but rather disclosure, transparency, reform. You can boil all of the above down to one term that ought to be the watchword for everybody in all of journalism’s myriad forms: honesty. I don’t mind a biased press (more on this later), but I do mind a dishonest press.

Dishonesty, by commission and omission, was at the heart of both the Dan Rather and Eason Jordan blowups. In the now-infamous 60 Minutes II case, Rather broadcast, defended, and even now continues to defend flat-out dishonest journalism: his evidence was prima facia bogus, his on-air “experts” were nothing of the sort, dissenting experts were ignored as CBS News shopped around for one who would give them the answer they wanted, and instead of admitting to (at the very least) having been had, Rather went on the attack, accusing his critics of impure motives instead of reporting on valid criticisms and investigating the actual facts. And despite all of the above, a large portion of the MSM, including its self-styled watchdog, the Columbia Journalism Review, continues to defend Rather and his discredited report.

Jordan’ s case, while not as cut-and-dried as Rather’s, is in the big picture far more disturbing. Jordan has been described as CNN’s ‘ambassador’ to the world, but his tenure in that post is hardly a paen to honest journalism. Jordan, and CNN under his leadership, has a long history of looking the other way when legitimate stories could have interfered with the network’s access to areas controlled by dictatorial regimes. Everyone is familiar with Jordan’s mea culpa after the fall of Baghdad , but Saddam Hussein was hardly the only monster he chose to appease. Jordan spoke almost lovingly of Fidel Castro in this 1999 speech, celebrating the opening of CNN’s laughable Havana bureau, which has gone on to contribute little more than English translations of Cuban propaganda. Even worse, in Jordan’s words, “[D]uring the discussions Castro suggested that CNN be made available to the entire world. In fact it was that seed, that idea that grew into CNN International, which is now seen in every country and territory on the planet.”

Given the editorial content of CNN International, I can readily believe it was founded at Castro’s suggestion.

Jordan also pandered to the odious Kim Jong Il of North Korea in 2003, dismissing criticism of Kim’s regime by noting on the air that, “a lot of people think North Korea’s a peculiar country, in large part because they don’t understand it, they’ve never been there, they’ve never seen it first hand,” and passing along Clinton Administration officials as being “stunned by how well informed and how smart this guy is.” Even if true, one questions the relevance of that observation when applied to an individual responsible for wholesale murder and monstrous oppression. It’s fair to ask now how Jordan’s playing to North Korea for access might have affected CNN’s coverage of Kim’s abominable reign.

Jordan ‘s track record of sucking up at his own country’s expense wasn’t limited to dictators; according to observers of the now-infamous Davos conference, he was playing to the anti-American prejudices of European and Arab attendees when he offered up evidence-free tales of US war crimes. He’d previously accused American troops of abusing journalists, on foreign soil and without providing any proof, on at least one other occasion. If there were any substance to Jordan’s claims, either in Davos or in Portugal , I strongly suspect stories would have been aired on his network by now. The more I learn about Jordan ‘s past escapades, the less sympathy I have for him. His unwillingness to report on actual atrocities committed by dictators he schmoozed makes his dishonest rumor-mongering all the more disgraceful.

Getting back to the overall topic, what I’d like to see in the MSM is not an end to rancor, or controversy, or tough reporting. What’s called for instead is an end to the myth of Olympian objectivity in the press. Reporters and editors are not higher beings–they are as subject to human foibles as anybody else–including those of bias, spite, ideology, and even hatred. It’s long-past time to drop the charade and admit that fact of life.

In financial writing, reporters are required to disclose any holdings or personal interest they may have in a company that they’re writing about. Why shouldn’t the same rules apply to political reporters? Why shouldn’t Dana Milbank, Peter Jennings, and Bob Schieffer publicly state, on a reasonably regular basis, who they voted for in the last election, and who they plan to vote for in upcoming races? (And yes, I’d extend that to Brit Hume and Bill O’Reilly as well.) They would demand the same of any critic of their coverage, and absolutely demand such disclosure from corporate officials, political activists, or even in man-on-the-street interviews.

Instead of disclosure, we currently have a ridiculous ad-hoc system of elaborate obfuscation and denial. On the one hand, we have credible surveys of journalists indicating they vote for Democratic candidates far out of proportion to the rest of the electorate, as well as the very-occasional admissions that newsrooms lean heavily left on most issues, buttressed by still-more polling data. On the other, we have ridiculous displays like an editor being suspended from his job because he donated $400 to a presidential candidate, and other very prominent journalists making a show of not voting because exercising their franchise might be construed as (gasp!) possibly leading to favor for one candidate over another in their coverage.

What are you afraid of, journalists? Being honest with your readers? Yes, some might discount you for being up-front with your beliefs, and stop paying attention–but I’m here to tell you, most of them are tuning you out already. Look at the Pew surveys. If your credibility was a stock, you’d be in Enron territory by now.

More to the point, do you really think everybody else in the world is so stupid as to believe you genuinely don’t have your own opinions, or that those opinions don’t affect the job you spend most of your time doing? Do you really believe that you and your peers, alone among the masses of the Earth, are specially blessed with the ability to completely separate your verbal and written communications from your personal opinions, at all times? Especially when you’re talking about highly-charged, contentious issues and political races?

Do you really think the rest of us are that gullible? Are you that arrogant? (Obviously, the answer to the latter is “yes,” from the Steve Lovelady/Nick Coleman/Jim Boyd/Randall Becks of the world, but as the old media monopolies crumble, writers with that kind of attitude are going to find themselves with very few readers, and they’ll deserve it.)

Wouldn’t it really be more ethical, and more honest for you to just admit where you’re coming from, on a reasonably regular basis, and let your readers make up their own minds? I had nothing but respect for Mickey Kaus last year when he disclosed how he was voting, and that he’d given John Kerry a few hundred bucks, instead of pretending that he didn’t have a dog in the fight. That admission also made Kaus’s criticisms of Kerry all the more compelling–because as any sports fan will tell you, you sit up and pay attention when a hometown beat writer says something bad about his own team. He wouldn’t be doing so unless he was 100% convinced it was correct and newsworthy.

So, Jay, at long last, that’s what I’d like to see out of the MSM. I’d like to see it live up to its best ideals, and its fundamental task: go find out what’s happening and report it honestly–and that includes being honest about what you, the reporters, bring to the story.

Is that really asking so much?

42 Responses to “MSM, Heal Thyself”

  1. Babalu Blog Says:

    MSM: Whirling Dervishes

    Vodkapundit’s Will Collier has an excellent essay on the MSM and what it needs to do to get its respectability back. At its core is the Eason Jordan/Ted Turner/fidel castro connection I wrote about here, plus a few more dictator…

  2. Scott P Says:

    Well said, Will. Well said.

  3. TwoCents Says:

    Bravo, Steve! Brilliant response–thanks for saying it so much more eloquently than I could. I plan to cite your piece (properly attributed, of course) when I end my subscription to the local rag, the Arizona Republic, in a few weeks.

  4. TwoCents Says:

    I meant Will, of course. mea culpa.

  5. erp Says:


    Nicely said, but of course it won

  6. John Lynch Says:

    Well written and on-point. I think the requirement, or desire, for transparency also requires some form of dialog. The active listening skills used to gather the story should also be used to understand what might be wrong with a story. I don’t mean the press need to cower to consumer’s differing opinions, no, they should have the backbone for defending their stories. But, if there is material error, by commision or ommision, the story should continue with the incorporation of salient facts. This is a bit of a revision of the somewhat obscure “correction” page and substantially enhances the perception of transparency.

    A sincere answer to Jay’s question.

  7. Mike M Says:

    I think nearly everyone on the right would be satisfied with an openly biased liberal media. (by that I mean admitting it, not like now where they won’t say so but everyone knows it)

    CBS wants to dwell on the Bush AWOL “story” during the campaign? Fine, just start every segment with an announcement that the network has endorsed Kerry for Prseident.

    CNN wants to run pieces saying how horrible things are in Iraq after the US invasion? Fine, just mention that they had a deal with Saddam to trade favorable stories for access before the war.

    The media has a tough choice to make…not unlike the NHL strike. The old status quo is gone guys, get used to it. Either make the tough choices that allow you to continue to operate with some credibility and audience, or sit obstinately as the whole shebang comes crashing down and you’re left with a pittance…if anything at all.

  8. reliapundit Says:

    effin perfect!

  9. Nick Says:


    But of course… the original question was “Is the point to have a dialogue with the MSM or cause its destruction?”

    I’d suggest that the answer is… that’s the wrong question. The question ought to be “Is the point to reform the MSM or cause its destruction?”

    The answer to that question is “Either is acceptable… but at least one must occur.” I’d rather see the former. But if we can’t have that, then I demand the latter. The status quo just won’t do.

  10. Easycure Says:

    Here I interject with my 10% theory:

    The bottom 10% of the people in any chosen profession are crap.

    In the case of reporters, that means at least 10% of reporting is crap. The problem with reporters in this age is that so few of them report….so many repeat the AP wire instead of questioning it and delving deeper into the matter.

    OF course, it doesn’t need to be said, but I will: CNN is in the bottom 10% of news organizations – down there with CBS.

  11. A.R.Yngve Says:

    Here’s a thought: the future of Mainstream Media is outsourced journalism.

    Remember those dramatic pictures and movies from the day when the tsunami struck Asia? Most of them were taken by non-professionals.

    Think about it. If anyone who happens to be nearby with his camcorder and phone-camera can scoop a dramatic event, what do we need professional foreign correspondents for?

    (Apparently, we need them to stand around and tell the viewers “As you can see, we’re still waiting for something to happen.”)

    I say outsource. The news will be better for it. Yes, there is the potential for abuse and faked reports… but that’s what fact-checking is for. And we know that the MSM are professional experts in that department.


  12. DC Carter Says:


    Perfect, just perfect. Will, you’ve out done yourself. Golfclap.

  13. Sgt. Mom Says:

    (polite patter of applause)
    Hear, hear!

  14. Roborant Says:

    The Future of Journalism?

    Will Collier has a very nice answer over at Vodka Pundit to the question asked by Jay Rosen:

    Is the point to have a dialogue with the MSM or cause its destruction?

    You should read Collier’s piece in full. It’s very detailed, but basically he

  15. Irate Savant Says:

    Mr. Collier,

    Whilst I agree with the general thrust of your post, methinks you are too generous in granting Jennings, Schieffer, O’Reilly, and Hume the title of “reporter”; though some in that group may have deserved to be described so in the past, their current activities better fit the unwieldy, yet more accurate, appellative “infotainment personality.”

    Oh, and Easycure: I would revise your number upward to approximately 90%. Perhaps 95%.

    Perhaps 98%.

  16. Chris Says:

    Very well said.

    I couldn’t agree more.

  17. Joust The Facts Says:

    All Things Considered

    Stephen Green at Vodkapundit has a well-written post discussing thoroughly the contretemps between the mainstream media and the conservative blogosphere.

  18. Mikey Says:

    In answer to your question: Yes, it is asking too much. Especially when someone has gotten away with a privileged position for so many years, to have the situation turn and be forced to justify one’s actions…

    Yes, it is a lot to ask for.

  19. Mark A. York Says:

    Where is the evidence that political affiliation influences reporting when you’re reporting straight news? Or profiling a candidate? I think this is a myth created by the biased readers themselves. They just won’t take no for an answer even when it’s the right answer. False premise=invalid.

  20. Says:

    Classiness, Pure Classiness, From Other Blogs.

    A summary of interesting topics from other blogs- Two, from Powerline: Imperial Hubris, or Jew-Hating? “That Scheuer mimics the Saudi line should not be surprising. The main theme of Imperial Hubris — that Muslim hatred of America is the product…

  21. Joust The Facts Says:

    All Things Considered

    Stephen Green at Vodkapundit has a well-written post discussing thoroughly the contretemps between the mainstream media and the conservative blogosphere.

  22. Ed Says:

    Open-Sourced Reporting

    Will Collier of Vodkapundit has some thoughts on how the media can repair the damage of the back to back to back crises of the media, most recently RatherGate and Eason Jordan’s serial soldier slandering, in a piece titled, “MSM,…

  23. Mike M Says:

    “Where is the evidence that political affiliation influences reporting when you’re reporting straight news?”

    There’s no such thing as “straight news”. All news is packaged and delivered for consumption…hence the term: media.

    Bias in the medium is no different than bias in the content. It’s just a matter of which stories get reported and carried, which stories get spiked, and the order and emphasis of which those stories are presented.

    Surely you don’t think that newscasts or papers are put together coincidentially? Editors decide what goes above the front page fold and what goes on page A26.

    I could publish the most biased newspaper on the planet and never use the words “liberal” or “conservative”, have no opinion section, and print straight off the AP wire. I can push or pull my readers simply by manipulating which stories appear where and how often.

    Is the Tsunami the defining event in human history sine 9/11? It leads for a week and we carry stories about the plight of the victims, relief efforts, and geologic science for months. Or we call it inconsequential, stick a write up on page A20 once a week and our readers go back to worrying about pollution or gas prices or whatever is on the front page.

    There’s no such thing as “straight news”. You try and turn it around by saying that if everything is biased, why worry and what can be done about it? The problem is that the vast majority of that inherent bias is tilting one way and the media would prefer that you didn’t notice.

  24. Ed Says:

    Before network television, most cities had at least two daily newspapers, and everyone knew which was demo and which was republician. Sometime after, the dailies started to die off, consolidate and or be bought up by major chains. The idea that newspapers were unbiased is relatively recent. I’m not sure when or why the idea ever arose. However all anyone should ask for is honesty. You know, Fox doesn’t say it is unbiased, all they say is they try to present all sides of issues. Fairness is not a bar to pushing a position, it is just an admission of position.

  25. Mark Says:

    Nice article!
    I agree…and I don’t think that bloggers are going to replace the MSM, but compliment them…as opinion, as conscience, and as such, I expect the relationship to evolve being somewhat adversarial.

    And inevitable.

    More on my blog, if anyone’s interested.

  26. Pat Says:

    Mr. Rosen’s question is an arresting one and while I agree with Will’s well-reasoned rely, I am not certain that it answers the question squarely.

    So I’ll rephrase the question: given a dishonest press, is the point to have a dialogue with the MSM or cause its destruction?

    Can you have a useful dialogue with a dishonest press?

  27. Sandy P Says:

    What do we want out of the MSM??



    Wonderful response, Will.

  28. Steve Lovelady Says:

    Jay Rosen kindly directed me here to read your response to his question.
    Your generalities are well-put (hey, who can argue against Motherhood and apple pie?), but a couple of your specifcs are off-base.
    I ask you to do a little homework before you again accuse Mike Hoyt, the editor of the print CJR,or me by extension, of “defending Dan Rather.”
    That’s an outright lie.
    I got more calls and e-mails after my nuts-and-bolts Dan Rather Gone Wrong wrapup on CJR Daily last year ( than we’ve gotten on any other post in the 13 months of our existence — the vast majority of them saying “Thanks for deconstructing in detail where and how he screwed up again, and again, and again.”
    Later, CJR-in-print ran a piece that questioned bloggers’methods, logical leaps and unwarranted conclusions in the Rather chase, one which you characterize as “a defense of Rather.” Mike Hoyt has grown hoarse pointing out the obvious to the obtuse: A critique of the blog chase is in no way “a defense of Rather.”

  29. Jim J Says:

    “and I don’t think that bloggers are going to replace the MSM, but compliment them”

    May not replace them, but in a relatively short time MSM will not even closely resemble the animal it is today. Blogs are the village voice (we the people) and it is from here that the MSM will eventually get most if not all of it’s news. Instead of the other way around.

    Great article. Mike

  30. Lurking Observer Says:

    For years, the lament was that the US did not have the kind of press that existed in Europe—vibrant, opinionated.

    Is it coincidence that the European press is not “unbiased,” but rather proudly displays it? No one reads Liberation without knowing that it is the paper of the French Left/Communists. And Red Ken gets away w/ accusing a Jew of being a Concentration Camp guard because he works for The Daily Mail a very right-wing paper.

    Nor is bias and professionalism necessarily at odds. For all that the Guardian is a left-wing paper, it has its share of excellent coverage; ditto the Daily Telegraph.

    One suspects, then, that perhaps the “unbiased” aspect has served its day—as many here have noted, an open acknowledgement of bias may well serve the MSM better than attempts to paper it over.

    The key, however, is to emphasize professionalism, and to openly admit one’s biases. (Including dropping the silliness that FoxNews is somehow unique in being biased.)

  31. deb D Says:

    As a journalist, Mr. Collier, all I gotta say is, “I think I’m in love.” 🙂 Such a pleasure to read and such an excellent addition to the recent writings on the media. I’ve passed it along to my old journalism professor. I hope it sparks some discussion.

  32. thibaud Says:

    This is the first analysis I’ve seen of the media’s shortcomings that would elicit applause from critics on both the left and the right.

    The issue is indeed transparency. But disclosure doesn’t go far enough. We need an open-source format for the creation, development and presentation of news stories, one that moves beyond static web pages and uneditable broadcasts toward a format that is dynamic, multidirectional, above all synthetic in a way that moves us toward truth as a good dialectical discussion would.

  33. Carl in Atlanta Says:

    Very nice. I think a lot of the MSM apoplexy is generational and technophobic. Change can be very hard, especially when it involves one’s world view, established back in Cronkite’s day.

  34. Robert Crawford Says:

    “Where is the evidence that political affiliation influences reporting when you’re reporting straight news?”

    It definitely influences the decisions on what gets covered and what doesn’t. You’re much, much more likely to hear about a corrupt businessman than a corrupt union official, for example. Then there’s the amusing habit, when reporting on the misdeeds of politicians, of omitting the party affiliation of Democrats while getting “Republican” in as much as possible when applicable.

  35. Robin Roberts Says:

    Lovelady, the outright lie was your claim that Pein’s article was not a defense of Rather. It could not be anything but.

    Pein made a lot of completely false claims to pretend that there was some doubt about the forgeries – claims that looked risible to anyone with any professional knowledge of how word processors and font software work ( which describes a lot of the bloggers attacking the Rather story including myself ).

    Pein could not write such a silly piece without the intention to defend Rather from us peasants. No one who had spent more than 10 minutes following the issue could have greenlighted the piece without the same intention.

    You are continuing to make a laughingstock of yourself and CJR.

  36. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Bush-haters need to grow up. Getting Fired helps.

    I want the heads of news agencies who are Bush-haters, and whose choices in news coverage and non-coverage show it, to be fired. Like L. Moonves of CBS. And Jordan. And Rather.

    see my post:

    Steve Lovelady concludes his (nice) list of CBS mistakes with “There’s nothing complicated about any of this. The real story here isn’t political bias on the part of CBS or Rather.”

    Seems to me like a clear defense of Rather against the charge of bias; thus
    Steve is lying when he says he’s not defending Rather.

  37. Secular Blasphemy Says:

    Bloggers to MSM: get off high horse

    Will Collier has some very good thoughts on the relationship between mainstream media (MSM) and bloggers.

  38. Intermittent Stream Says:

    Linky Link

    So much to say. So few original thoughts of my own.The latest edition of the Red Ensign Standard is up over at Striving Against Opposition. I like this blog a lot. Not only is the author’s name Chris, not only…

  39. r. larson Says:

    It appears that we may be birds of a feather. I sent this e-mail to the Columbia Journalism Review yesterday. Doubt it got anywhere.

    Steve Lovelady is quoted in an e-mail as saying, in reference to the resignation of Eason Jordan of CNN,

  40. BumperStickerPolitix Says:

    MSM v blogosphere

    The MSM claims the mantle of journalistic keepers of the fourth estate, yet time after time they have demonstrated utter disregard if not outright contempt for the audience they are there to serve.

  41. Birkel Says:

    Lovelady wrote:
    “…A critique of the blog chase is in no way “a defense of Rather.”

    Birkel responds:
    The “blog chase” is a very interesting way to characterize a pursuit of the truth. Most if not all of those who watched Rathergate unfold knew within five minutes that the documents were fakes. After that, we bloggers worked to get CBS to admit its error and correct the public record. If that constitutes a “blog chase” then perhaps all investigative reporting should now be called a “reporter chase,” no?

    And if investigative reporting is not a “reporter chase” then it must be something else. And whatever that something is is analogous to what bloggers did pursuing the truth. Call it, for example simply “reporting” instead of a “reporting chase” and we must call bloggers’ efforts “reporting” where new facts were uncovered or facts were collated to accurately reveal the overall narrative. Or we could call it editorializing where new facts were not reported and assertions or implications were discussed. That is what you call it right? Editorializing?

    Either way, the choice of wording you’ve made betrays your underlying bias, I’m afraid. Perhaps you’d like to choose value-neutral terms to hide your beliefs more effectively? Or perhaps your contempt is so complete you think us unable to detect your derision?

    We are not fooled, good sir.

  42. jag Says:

    No one likes additional competition in their field. Competition exposes your weakness and forces you to improve. If you’re accustomed to a virtual monopoly, so much more the discomfort you feel when it is disrupted.
    All the efforts to discredit bloggers will fail as all a respectable blogger has are facts, logic, history and an ability to persuasively articulate their opinion (as Mr. Collier has done so well here).
    As Peggy Noonan points out today in the WSJ, those bloggers who are consistent, honest and intelligent will prosper, those who don’t will be disregarded very quickly. Can’t get any fairer than that can it?
    But then, most of the MSM isn’t about “fairness” or “diversity” is it? Its about retaining its powerful, monolithic, influence. Unfortunately, the MSM can’t stem the tide of technology. They can either adapt and reveal their bias or seek real balance in their reporting. If they don’t do one or the other they’ll find the same fate as any blogger who tries to game his audience.
    The new world order is demanding transparency and accountability.
    Get over it or die.

    Posted by jag at February 17, 2005 09

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