Mainstream Media Heartburn.pdf

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					                                                      Electronic Frontier


               Brock Meeks


               Mainstream Media
               Heartburn
               M
                         ainstream media tried to          But life has a funny way of            Journalistic blunders abound in
                         eat Matt Drudge, the self-    evening the score. In the last sev-     the reporting of the Clinton-
                         made cyber sleuth who         eral months, mainstream journal-        Lewinsky scandal. The Boston Globe
               regularly publishes the online          ism has suffered a run of               discovered a popular columnist had
               “Drudge Report” and who scooped         embarrassing disclosures that make      routinely invented people she
               Newsweek on the Clinton-Lewinsky        Drudge’s online reporting look like     quoted. The New Republic admitted
               scandal, bringing it to the public’s    it’s Pulitzer-Prize caliber.            that one of its writers fabricated all
               attention first.                            Actually, mainstream journal-       or parts of more than two dozen
                  Then mainstream media ate            ism should have seen its recent         articles. That same writer infected
               itself and now it’s eating the Net.     black eye coming. The entire news       stories in other major magazines
                                                                                               as well.
                                                                                                  More recently, there was the
                                                                                               CNN/Time magazine scandal
                                                                                                   involving an unprovable story
                                                                                                     about how the Pentagon
                                                                                                     dropped nerve gas on U.S.
                                                                                                     military deserters hiding out
                                                                                                    in Laos during the Vietnam
                                                                                                  War. CNN fired the producers
                                                                                                 of that story; Time retracted its
                                                                                               article and apologized for its lack
                                                                                               of journalistic oversight.

                                                                                               Myth of 80 Percent
                                                                                               A popular rap against Drudge is
               In each case, big media has been        debacle surrounding the bombing         that he boasts about being “80%
               left reaching for the pink stuff to     of Centennial Park during the           accurate” in his news stories and
               relieve its heartburn.                  Olympics was the tip-off. News          that such a percentage is good
                  Somebody owes Drudge a big           organizations from TV to news-          enough. Drudge’s statement makes
               apology. No, make that a lot of         papers were caught flat-footed by       his mainstream critics apoplectic.
               somebodies. For more than a year,       wrongly fingering Richard Jewel         “Foul!” they cry. He could never
               old-line media used Drudge as           as the perpetrator.                     get away with such a cavalier atti-
               their personal whipping post. The          As we know now, Jewel didn’t         tude at a “real” news organization.
               more drubbings Drudge’s brand of        have anything to do with the            Small catch: the quote is a modern
               journalism took from the august         bombing. Several news organiza-         urban myth.
               gatekeepers of American journal-        tions apologized to Jewel; some            The geniuses of this “80% fac-
               ism, the more puffed up they            paid him in lieu of litigating          tor” reveal a different story. In an
RANDALL ENOS




               became. But oh how the mighty           embarrassing libel suits. Since         April 11, 1997 Washington Post
               have fallen ... on their swords in      Jewel, the news has been all            story by media critic Howard
               many cases.                             downhill.                               Kurtz, Drudge said a story about

                                                                               COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM September1998/Vol. 41, No. 9   11
                                             Electronic Frontier

the president having fondled a vis-            news services is skyrocketing. In       portal site, Snap, and taking a
itor to the Oval Office “seemed to             1995 only 4% of adults went             minority stake in C-Net News.
have about 80% of the facts.” He               online at least once a week to get      Disney, which owns ABC, followed
never said those facts were inaccu-            their news; as of May 1998 that         by buying into Infoseek.
rate, nor did he say all his stories           figure is 20%. Meanwhile, viewer-          This sudden embracing of a
were 80% accurate.                             ship of broadcast news is plum-         medium that mainstream journal-
   Drudge did admit in a National              meting. In 1993, 60% of all             ism once held as unclean is,
Press Club appearance earlier this             Americans over 18 tuned their           frankly, not an altogether welcome
year that “I once gave a quote that,           TVs to the news on a regular basis.     occurrence.
oh, I guess I’m 80% accurate [for]             As of May, the Pew survey says
the body of my work.” But he                   that number has dropped to a            Co-opting of Net News
included in this percentage all the            mere 38%. Newspaper readership          For decades we have seen the corpo-
predictions he makes, such as spec-            remains steady—68% of those             ratization of the mainstream press.
ulating that the recent Jim Carrey             polled read a daily newspaper reg-      More and more outlets held by a
film, The Truman Show, would                   ularly while 47% say they read a        fewer number of companies. This
make $300 million.                             newspaper “yesterday.” However,         concentration in the news busi-
   If all the talking-head pundits             newspaper readership is becoming        nesses has dented investigative jour-
on Sunday-morning news shows                   less clear; only 28% of those under     nalism to the point where it’s
had to factor in their own off-the-            30 surveyed said they read a news-      almost nonexistent. The daily news
cuff predictions, I’d wager their              paper “yesterday” compared with         is dry and boring; white bread
accuracy percentages would be                  69% of seniors.                         served up in black-and-white print
much lower than 80%.                               The journalistic landscape these    or blow dried on TV and cable.
   At the same National Press                  days, at least in the mainstream, is        And the loss of a diversity of
Club appearance, Drudge was                    being pressured on all sides and        voice in the news business is
asked if he could “succeed as a                the stress is showing. In the           shocking; the public should be
journalist working for an organiza-            attacks on Drudge and by exten-         outraged, instead they are merely
tion that required 100% accuracy               sion, all things Internet, and in the   turned off and so they tune out, as
instead of 70% or 80%?”                        rush to be first, at the expense of     the Pew survey so starkly shows.
   Drudge answered: “I don’t                   being right. Velocity, not veracity,        There is, I fear, a real danger
know what organization that                    it seems, is the thrust of the news     that online journalism is heading
would be.” A smattering of                     cycle these days.                       for a similar fate if big media con-
applause followed. Touche.                         Writing about the CNN/Time          tinues to encroach. How can it
                                               fiasco, New York Times columnist        not? Big media is all about the
Running Scared                                 Frank Rich says, “the culture that      bottom line. And to keep the bot-
The subtext of all the piling on               caused it remains entrenched—and        tom line healthy, these big media
attacks from mainstream journal-               ubiquitous. It’s the same entertain-    companies have to keep advertisers
ists directed at this poster child for         ment culture, with its insatiable       happy. You don’t keep advertisers
bad boy Net journalism is easy to              hunger for new stars and daily          happy by running hard-nosed
read: We are afraid.                           scoops (however tenuous), that has      reports on industry failings with
   And if a recent survey from the             contributed to many of our recent       any regularity.
Pew Research Center surveying                  media messes...”                            And when it comes to online
3,002 adults is to be believed,                    The fact that the Internet has a    journalism, there is a paucity of
mainstream journalism may indeed               built-in immediacy almost impos-        advertisers in the first place, there-
have good reason to be afraid.                 sible to match has lead mainstream      fore, the main thrust is attracting
   The Pew survey, a biennial                  journalism to start to embrace it,      advertisers. Making online news
study of news consumption habits               rather than repeal it. NBC, which       “safe” for advertisers will have an
of Americans (www.people-                      is a partner with Microsoft in the      adverse effect on the quality and
press.org/med98rpt.htm) shows                  joint venture MSNBC, kicked off         type of journalism produced there.
that consumption of Internet-based             this trend when it bought into the          This is exactly why we need the

12     September1998/Vol. 41, No. 9 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
Matt Drudge’s of the world.
Whether or not you like his partic-
ular brand of journalism—and
from the traffic Drudge claims his
Web site receives, there are plenty
of people that do—Drudge repre-
sents a diversity of voice that isn’t
found in the mainstream press. It’s
a diversity the mainstream will
never recapture.
   But the Internet still has that
diversity; it still has that verve.
Yes, much of what passes for Inter-
net news is wacko, completely off
the wall. So what? It’s a market-
place of ideas; let the buyer beware.
The important thing is that if
there are 10,000 or a 100,000
voices out there producing news,
much of it will be good. Much of
it will be ground out by idealistic
journalists looking to make their
mark and forget the big dollars
that come with a TV contract or
star columnist slot. I predict we’ll
see many more I.F. Stone’s emerge
from such efforts than many more
Matt Drudge’s.
   The news consumers now flock-
ing to the Net in numbers that
make the bean counters at newspa-
pers and broadcast networks envi-
ous are smart enough to glean the
wheat from the chaff. Whether or
not Net news actually becomes co-
opted by big media dollars remains
to be seen. It’s a sure bet, however,
that these big media types will, for
the near-term future, continue to
wring the hands while trying to
figure out how to stop the hemor-
rhaging of their audience … and
keep reaching for the antacid. c

Brock Meeks (brock.meeks@
msnbc.com) is chief Washington
correspondent for MSNBC.

© 1998 ACM 0002-0782/98/0900 $5.00



                                        COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM September1998/Vol. 41, No. 9   13

				
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