Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More Media Crap

Bloggers Megan McArdle and Glenn Greenwald have been busy engaging in a war of words over the relatively poor state of the national political media. Greenwald sees, alternatively, laziness, or something far darker in the mainstream media's failure to thoroughly hash out political news. McArdle merely sees a consumer driven media that cares more about Barack Obama bowling than John Yoo's torture memo.

Greenwald started the debate, McArdle responded, and Greenwald posted a rather nasty rebuttal.

Mostly responding to her commenters, Megan McArdle has four follow up posts; Reading is Fundamental, A Great Business Opportunity, The Real Problem with the Media, and Media's Sacred Trust Is Sadly Not a Trust Fund.

Greenwald and McArdle are basically in agreement about poor political coverage in the mainstream media- the debate is really just about root causes. I should note, I definitely fall on the Megan McArdle side of things. Perhaps most importantly, there is a major difference between editorial choices in large newspapers and major media outlets and what journalists working for those outlets would actually want to report on. But whether talking about journalistic or editorial choices, I tend to be suspicious of theories that apply to the monolithic media as a whole.

Here's the thing- I do think, in general, the mainstream media sucks from an objective standpoint. But my complaints tend to have to do more with specific disciplines. Science reporting is bad, legal reporting is bad, and economic reporting ain't so hot. Relatively, I don't think the state of political reporting is so bad- generally, most reports get the basics right, unlike in some of those other disciplines.

To argue about the relative prominence and the relative merits of some stories over others, well ... I think you're treading on to unsteady ground. As Megan has discussed time and time again, you can't leave out the issue of consumer tastes- papers can only print what's going to sell. But maybe even more importantly, how do you weigh questions of consumer tastes and relative costs with even more nebulous concepts of personal and political judgments. So yes, Greenwald is correct that political judgments do play a role in political coverage, however, it's merely one of any number of factors. In the end, the mainstream media isn't a monolithic organization making one group decision- it's an amalgamation of various connected and unconnected newspapers, news outlets and television networks. Each organization has it's own editorial choices to be made and for the bigger organizations (like say the 24 hour cable news outlets) there are editorial decisions to be made on various levels for various sorts of programming.

Glenn Greenwald laments the lack of attention the mainstream media has paid to the story of John Yoo's torture memos to the Bush administration, but as I've just finished pointing out, there are a multitude of factors that play into how and how much a news story is covered. I wouldn't dream of coming up with a simple theory to explain the multitude of journalistic and editorial decisions that occurred. I buy what Megan McArdle has to say because it's loosely based on all these factors. I question what Glenn Greenwald has to say because his explanation attempts to be all-encompassing. Glenn Greenwald thinks the John Yoo story is of eminent national importance- good for him and thank God for the internet for providing a forum for the story to be discussed. I'm not sure what Megan McArdle thinks- the fact that she hasn't weighed in on the issue says as much about her specific role as a blogger on economics and economic policy as it does about anything else.

My comments on the mainstream media, both today and in the past on this blog, tend to refer to specific instances of poor explanations of technical matters, explanations that distort the basic facts of a story. It's not always true across the board, just a phenomenon I've observed on multitudes of occasions, a phenomenon by the way, that I've never really tried to explain. Here's the difference between me and Greenwald- my criticism relates strictly to the manner of chosen subject matter. Greenwald's criticism on the other hand, is specifically about the selection of subject matter. I don't get all bent out of shape that the media doesn't cover all the stuff I find important, I only get worked up when they do a poor ass job of covering the news they do cover.


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