Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Are the Media's Responsibilities?

Glenn Greenwald, Megan McArdle, and Daniel Drezner are having a bit of a blog war today over McArdle and Drezner's response to a post Greenwald made yesterday. The debate revolves around what establishment media outlets cover and should cover in terms of political news. Since this is an important debate, and since I've already gotten into the middle of it, I figured I would add some of my own thoughts here (and specifically in response to something Greenwald addressed to me in the comments to his post).

First, a quick history: Greenwald's original post argued that the media have a moral duty/obligation to cover the Yoo torture memos more in depth than trivial crap like Obama's bowling scores. Greenwald essentially argued that the media cover the trivial stuff either because of a conservative bias or because of an elitist disdain for the average American. McArdle and Drezner responded, with McArdle (in her usual snarky way) pointing out that the media don't cover these stories as much as we think they should because they simply do not get traction with the American public, and thus do not sell papers. Drezner's response was briefer, and contained an important factual error, but questioned Greenwald's methodology and argued that the problem was just one of the media preferring to cover issues that will have a clear future effect. In response, Greenwald accuses McArdle and Drezner of being part of the problem with the media, and arguing that the media is responsible for driving public opinion, not for merely giving the people what they want.

I humbly entered the debate on McArdle's side, with this comment at Greenwald's site. I think and continue to think that Greenwald's outrage towards McArdle and Drezner is misplaced, since they were not making normative arguments about what they think is important, but were instead making descriptive arguments about what the media actually does cover, and why. (FYI-Megan's response to Greenwald is here).

Greenwald then graciously published a direct response to my comment. My response to this is below.

First, I think Greenwald is correct that Drezner's argument is more normative than McArdle's; however, it still strikes me that Drezner (who I don't read nearly as often as I read McArdle) is not arguing that the Yoo memos are an unimportant issue. Instead, Drezner is arguing that forward-looking issues are more important than issues that have occured in the past (note: Greenwald points out, correctly, that the question of torture more generally is an ongoing issue).

Second, the key question of whether the media drives public interest or public interest drives the media is largely a "chicken-or-the-egg" question. My suspicion is that it's a little of both, but in the era of alternative media, the establishment are more frequently following public interest. Indeed, looking at today's top stories on Digg, every single story on the first page is what you would call "trivial." There are several political stories in this group, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule: a DKos story about Obama returning a check, a CNN story linked to with the caption "Clinton Lies Again," and an image captioned "Do the math. It's Over- Obama Supporters at Clinton Rally." These are the stories that even the internet-savvy with access to all sorts of alternative media rank as the best and most important stories of the day.

Third, to call McArdle (an economics blogger/journalist) and Drezner (an political scientist and niche blogger) part of the problem with the MSM and to specifically criticize their lack of focus on the torture question is a bit odd. To the extent either of them are part of the "media," they are "alternative" media sources. While McArdle writes for a major magazine, she focuses almost exclusively on economics; asking her to focus on torture is like asking Greenwald (a legal scholar) to focus on most economically efficient way of solving the so-called mortgage crisis.

Fourth, it's worth pointing out that MSM's hyperfocus on trivialities is one of the reasons that alternative media has been growing by leaps and bounds, and an increasing number of people get their news from blogs, talk shows, and comedians. The existence of these alternatives has allowed a number of stories to prosper (and eventually become significant in the MSM) outside of the traditional media. Indeed, one such story was a triviality created by Progressive alternative media that knocked the attorney firing scandal off the front pages at the worst possible time: the Don Imus scandal.

Fifth, I should say that I do think the American people care more about these issues than the MSM give them credit for in their coverage (consider the huge percentage of Americans who want to impeach Bush or Cheney). However, I think that most of the people who care about these issues are precisely the people who least listen to the MSM; meanwhile the people who care least about these issues are precisely the people who get the majority of their political news from the MSM. This fact makes people like McArdle, Drezner, and of course Greenwald himself, important parts of the solution - not of the problem - because people with a general interest in their niche subject now have the ability to educate themselves in that niche in a much better fashion. It just so happens, however, that Greenwald's niche (civil liberties and legal matters) is a much more popular niche than McArdle's or Drezner's....but it is still a specific niche. The flipside to this, though, is that the MSM's audience is increasingly people who don't care particularly much about any niches at all, and someone like me will have to suffer through hours of coverage before I see a story that has any interest to me. Even when they do cover a niche issue, they will be unwilling to cover it in more than the most general of fashions. Which means that all nuance and subtlety gets removed from the MSM's coverage, and we are left with two talking heads yelling back and forth at each other with generalized talking points that tell those of us in the know absolutely nothing.

Finally, I should point out that a major culprit in all of this is the MSM's current perceived need to "represent both sides fairly" in all matters of political import. In some instances of particularly inflammatory issues (like torture), this can result in reduced coverage because merely discussing the issue publicly will upset a sizable portion of their audience (which means lost ratings).

So the question is: how do we with an interest in a particular issue that we believe of capital importance create enough broad interest in that issue to enact real change? To that question, I honestly do not know the answer. However, as more people rely on alternative media sources, more people will join our various causes and take an interest in our niches.

***UPDATE- For more on the Yoo torture memoranda and a JAG lawyer who engaged in an incredible and heroic act of civil disobedience, see this article today, which I highly recommend.

More at memeorandum.

***UPDATE II- A lot of people cite the Abu Ghraib case as an example of the public caring about issues like this and that therefore the American people would get excited about the Yoo memorandum if the media would just try harder to get the issue out there. Unfortunately, this is the exception that proves the rule. In Abu Ghraib, you had something that created an immediate emotional reaction in the American people and about which subtlety and nuance were unnecessary. Moreover - and this is what is important - the photos were the entire basis for the outrage. As a result, the American public was not outraged at the Bush Administration (especially once they offered a defense that was based on nothing but lies) so much as they were outraged at the individual soldiers involved (and who were themselves in the published pictures). As a result, once the soldiers were identified and brought forward for prosecution, the public was largely mollified.