I’ve been reading the exchanges between Andrew Breitbart and Conor Friedersdorf (who has now written a response to Breitbart’s rebuttal from yesterday). My problem with Conor’s initial article is that he appears to want Breitbart’s ventures to be more like the New York Times, or at least how the Times is presents itself to the public. That is: not overtly politically. To be a news source that breaks the news that needs to be broke, but in a politically neutral way.
However, from what I know of Big Government and Big Hollywood, that’s not their purpose. Their purpose is to be overtly conservative, at least in their own material, in opposition to what they perceive as the overwhelmingly liberalness of Hollywood and the current Washington administration. Conor, to his credit, does understand the many problems with the Times’ reporting, the liberalness in Hollywood, and the problems with the Obama administration, and credits Breitbart for his exposes. I just don’t think he understands the point behind those sites. As Breitbart points out, he’s not trying to hide anything:
At no point have I attempted to hide my political leanings as I have endeavored to create Big Hollywood and Big Government. There is a need for a checks and balance against the New York Times and the rest of the supposedly neutral traditional press.
In fact, the very problem is that the mainstream press (including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Fox News, etc.) continue to play the game of publicly announcing their politically neutrality, while behind the scenes, running very partisan operations.
People that follow the activities of the media closely have noticed one development in recent years: they have become more and more politically partisan. Not only is it in the editorial section, where you might expect this kind of thing, but it also either seeps into the reporting, or shows up in the decisions by the editors of which stories to cover and which not to cover. Or on the amount of coverage to give a certain story. Even though these symptoms have begun to become absurdly apparent to those paying attention, and even to some of those only paying cursory attention, most newspapers and networks will continue to deny it.
There are reasons to do so: ratings (for TV), or readership (for papers), is one. A publication wants to have the widest readership possibility, and admitting a political alignment is understandably going to turn off many people who don’t subscribe to the same politics. Readership or viewership might start to drop, and no publication wants that. In particular, newspapers don’t want it, since they are already approaching their death beds.
The other reason is tradition: newspapers and television newsrooms across America still pride themselves on their supposed neutrality. It is, after all, the philosophy that built them into what they are today. I think very few journalists of this generation would want to walk away from that. Even with some of lines between reporting and commentary blurring, and even though some journo-commentators embrace this change, many journalists still stick to their guns and try to be as neutral as they can. Jake Tapper of ABC News is one journalist I know that does this, and because of his consistency he faces a barrage of attacks from both left and right commentators every day. Things may change in years to come, but I predict that the preference toward neutrality will prevail for the foreseeable future.
Now, both of these need not necessarily come packaged together. MSNBC in particular has gotten uber-ideological over the past couple years, and yet publicly still maintains an aura of neutrality, probably for the reason of ratings. But it’s not only MSNBC. The New York Times, Fox News, the AP, The Wall Street Journal, and even CNN have all faced the infection of partisanship on their reporting in one way or another. Yet they all continue to maintain a public face of neutrality. It’s frankly not very honest. The American public would probably be better served if they just stopped beating around the bush and declared their ideological allegiances publicly, as newspapers do in the UK. However, they probably won’t do it because, as previously pointed out, the possibility of lost ratings or readership doesn’t justify it.
So in the face of a mainstream press that either won’t clean up its act, or just face reality, online publications have stepped up to the plate to present an partisan alternative to the “big boys.” Big Hollywood, Big Government, The Huffington Post, Pajamas Media, and others have all been successful in filling these niche markets. They may be partisan, but at least they’re honestly partisan.
It’s not just the newbies that have tried to capture this market share, either. As Michael van der Galien and I both wrote about previously, Fox News earlier this year launched a website that aims to target conservatives. They use their “Statement of Purpose” page to admit as much which, as I said in the earlier article, makes them more honest than a lot of the other media entities out there.
I think the fact that these publicly partisan publications exist only on the Internet, and not among the mainstream printing presses or the airwaves, just shows the power of the Internet for the promotion of political discourse. While it is true that many politically-inclined sites out there are nothing more than sounding boards for ideologically like-minded people, there are definitely pockets of websites that can work to positively encourage civil debate. The mainstream press isn’t going to risk their wallets on public alignment with an ideology, so it is up to these Internet sites to take the lead.
The question is whether or not sites like Big Government or HuffPo are the future of media coverage, as newspapers see their readership dwindle. Even television is likely to face similar problems as Internet video services finally start becoming profitable. As this happens, will there be a way for the mainstream press to keep up its presence in an Internet dominated world, or will the “neutral news media” take a step to the back burner to make way for the partisan sites?
I think the only viable option for the mainstream press is to clean up their act. If they don’t, people will continue to flock to the partisan news sites to see what coverage they might be missing out on. They will be right to do so, because if a news source isn’t properly informing its subscribers, then what’s the point of viewing or reading it? Just that: there isn’t one.