Sunday, November 14, 2010

On The Media, Part 1 - The Corrupt Versus the Non Corrupt

This is Jon Stewart's recent interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

In fairness, it isn't one of Stewart's more coherent interviews. Perhaps he and Maddow didn't gel. But I think it's mostly on Stewart, personally. If you have the time, dig up his pre-rally appearance on Larry King. Much funnier and much more succinct.

He does manage to make some salient points, however. First and foremost is his position that the real conflict that media, specifically cable news media, is not that of left versus right, but that of corruption versus the non-corrupt. He asks, and it's never really effectively answered, why this focus is so pervasive in what passes for our modern day news media.

Fortunately, this question is easy to answer. Investigation of corruption is expensive and time consuming. It also returns results that can be extremely complicated for the viewer to understand. (Enron, for example).

What is not cheap, not time consuming, and fills a great deal of time (and with a 24 hour news cycle we have nothing but time) is the idea of arguing. Within the cable news paradigm, all one has to do is choose a side and watch the arguments unfold, within the backdrop of a marginally credible "news" network, and you're off and running.

You might suggest that CNN's iReports and Al Gore's Current TV are attempts to work around this model. And you'd be partially right. These two concepts rely on people to send in live streams of events as they happen. But these don't really qualify as investigative reporting either. It's free content provided by self selecting eyewitnesses. Like the arguments that take place on tv, largely moderated by a useless host such as Wolf Blitzer, they depend on the viewer to make an accurate interpretation of what's being said.

In the past, we could rely on newspapers to make the investment in investigative reporting to pick up the slack. Watergate was driven by the Washington Post. The Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize investigating Vietnam atrocities (and deserved a second for it's Tom Noe investigation). More recently, the Cleveland Plain Dealer did terrific work untangling the corruption rampant in Cuyahoga County government.

But, for reasons I'll elaborate on in another entry, newspapers no longer have the money or the patience to make large scale investments in investigative reporting.

And even if a publication does make an effort to focus on investigative reporting, those who find themselves on the short end of the partisan side of the results of these investigations simply accuse the publication of bias. Mother Jones (which is usually well worth your time and money) and The Nation (which kind of isn't) are not the same publication. Both are painted with the liberal brush.

Local news organizations aren't usually much help either. Just this week, I was enlightened to the fact that there is apparently an epidemic of people who have never had sex with each other getting married (and then not having sex with each other), and that another station has exclusive photos that prove ghosts are real.

For the record, I like Maddow, and do make an effort to catch her program. Her program with Chuck D of Public Enemy was without question the most entertaining thing about Air America.

And Jon Stewart is right as well. At the beginning of the last decade, we had multiple forms of media that audited the media. Brill's Content, and the Media Studies Journal were three publications that served as excellent, non-partisan watchdogs that audited the media we consumed. All three are now gone. With the financial and content free state of our media today, we are worse off for it.