The mainstream media tends to view their authority as an entitlement rather than a trust.
FORGIVE THE MIXED METAPHOR, but did the mainstream media jump the shark this summer? The expression “jump the shark” comes from the long-running 1970s sitcom Happy Days. In the 1977 fifth-season premiere, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) dons water skis, swim trunks, and his trademark leather jacket and launches over a trapped shark. The episode marked the point at which the show’s writers ran out of ideas and began substituting extravagant gimmicks in place of the solid plots that had made it a success in the first place. “Jumping the shark” has since become a metaphor for the beginning of such a decline.
The mainstream media once typified impartiality and authority, which together added up to credibility. Major media outlets, especially the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the three major broadcast networks, set the terms for lesser institutions and policed the limits of respectable political conversation. They reflected the broad center-left consensus that prevailed in the years after World War II—and continued to do so long after that consensus started giving way in the 1960s, with the rise of the Goldwater right and the New Left.
For the past seven years, this column has chronicled the decline of the mainstream media’s credibility. That decline has multiple sources, including the increasing polarization of American politics, which has made it more difficult to appear “moderate” and thereby conceal one’s own biases; the emergence of new media that not only compete with the old but also act as adversarial critics; and the mainstream media’s own hubris, their tendency to view their authority as an entitlement rather than a trust that they must continuously earn anew by adhering to standards of impartiality.
In fact, the major trend in news coverage over the past few years has been an aggressive reassertion of authority coupled with a disavowal of impartiality. The theoretical underpinning of this attitude is the critique of “false balance,” which I discussed in this space last month, and which has been endorsed by both President Obama and Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s new “public editor.” It boils down to the claim that if one side in a political argument has a monopoly on truth—and guess which side that always turns out to be?—journalists are not only justified in taking sides but duty-bound to do so.
This new partisan journalism mainly takes the form of the “fact check,” a genre I’ve also discussed before (see Presswatch, TAS, December 2008/January 2009 and March 2012). In a “fact check,” a reporter scrutinizes a politician’s statement and then pronounces a judgment—which is to say, an opinion—about its veracity.
Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention sent the “fact checkers” into a frenzy. A look at their output shows the “fact checking” genre to be not only biased but laughably shoddy. Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press “fact check”:
RYAN: “And the biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly.…So they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.”
THE FACTS: Ryan’s claim ignores the fact that Ryan himself incorporated the same cuts into budgets he steered through the House in the past two years as chairman of its Budget Committee.…
RYAN: “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”
THE FACTS: Ryan himself asked for stimulus funds shortly after Congress approved the $800 billion plan.
In both of these cases, the AP neither disputes nor verifies the factual accuracy of Ryan’s statements. Each of its rebuttals is simply a tu quoque—an argument that Ryan is hypocritical.
Sometimes the so-called fact checks are just red herrings. Here’s an example from ABC News:
In comparing President Obama to Jimmy Carter, Ryan said in July 1980 the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent and “for the past 42 months it’s been above 8 percent under Barack Obama’s failed leadership.”
Both parts of this sentence are true according to the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in July 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, unemployment was at 9.4 percent. In July 1982 it was higher at 9.8 percent.
In July 1992, when George H.W. Bush was president, unemployment was at 7.7 percent.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?