Why are Americans not being bombarded with sermons on the irresponsibility of blogs and new media generally? After all, the White House's attacks on the Chamber of Commerce originated with a salacious, factually-erroneous report on a highly partisan left-wing blog. Shouldn't we be hearing about the dangers of relying on new media for political news?
We were inundated with such talk after the video that led to the Department of Agriculture's fired of Shirley Sherrod turned out to have misrepresented her words. The story - that Sherrod made race-based decisions in her capacity as an Ag Department employee - was based on faulty evidence. It would never have made it into the mainstream were it not for the lax journalistic standards of digital reporters - in this case, Andrew Breitbart.
It seems that Old Media is far less concerned with such irresponsibility now that the attack is coming from the left.
The "new media bad" argument was perhaps best channeled by Walter Shapiro, senior correspondent for Politics Daily, and a former reporter for Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and Salon, among others. "After Breitbart and Shirley Sherrod," declared Shapiro in a headline, "We Need a Slow-News Movement."
Breitbart is just a symbol of a larger problem that transcends the poison-pen politics of ideological warriors (of both the right and left) and the slippery ethics of the blogosphere. We have collectively blundered into a P.T. Barnum media age when being first trumps being accurate. The economic rewards of the Internet flow to those who win the search-engine wars by being fast and furious rather than to those laggards who wait to be accurate and comprehensive. It is as if the motto of today's journalism has become: "He who dies with the most clicks wins."
St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans echoed this sentiment: "This is what happens when ideologically-focused noise machines are treated like real news outlets," he wrote.
…Sherrod's case shows exactly why fair-minded news outlets should be careful -- taking time to make sure these stories trumpeted by media outlets with clear political agendas are examined carefully. It's time to put the brakes on a runaway media culture open to manipulation and subversion; outlets moving slowly on stories shouldn't necessarily be penalized.
Fair enough. Leave aside for the moment that, as I wrote in July, "a journalist with a political agenda is not necessarily a dishonest one, and a journalist who claims to be objective is not necessarily honest." Suppose we accept Deggans's and Shapiro's lamentations - where are there objections now that ThinkProgress, a highly-partisan, ideologically driven blog, has pushed a completely bogus smear of a large political group into the mainstream political and media conversations?
Deggans of course spent a few paragraphs ripping on Fox News for pushing the Sherrod story (never mind that Sherrod was fired before Fox actually aired any story about the controversy). So where is his outrage now? As I reported last week, MSNBC had no problem picking up on ThinkProgress's baseless accusations. Isn't this another example of the supposed irresponsibility of new media? Where is all the mourning of journalism's golden age?
The problem, by these critics' accounts, is a serious one. After all, political decisions were made based on counterfactual reporting. That is why we need the mainstream media, the line goes. Bloggers cannot be trusted to report fact free of political bias and dishonesty.
And for all the criticism of Breitbart, many saved quite a bit for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilasack for basing his decision (to fire Sherrod) on faulty evidence. The Sherrod story, wrote John Maeres for the Columbia Journalism Review, is "about how an edited sound bite...can ruin a career and rankle old national wounds."
What about how unsupported allegations can demonize and victimize a legitimate, law-abiding (as far as anyone can tell) politiclal group? CJR and all the others trumpeted the Sherrod story as evidence of the dangers of basing political decisions on reports from blogs and new media. So what of the president's - and his administration's - decision to demonize the Chamber based on completely fabricated charges?
Where is Chuck Todd to again decry "Drudge-driven journalism" or Helen Thomas to lament that "everybody who owns a laptop thinks they’re a journalist and doesn’t understand the ethics… It's dangerous."?
Again, leave aside the amazing arrogance and ignorance of such statements, and ask: why are these same reporters not using ThinkProgress's bogus "investigation" as an occasion to make similar statements? The answer, of course, is that new media really are not a problem as long as they serve the same agenda as old media. It's when those agendas differ that journalists start to howl.
Atlantic contributing editor Michael Hirschorn, in an article in the November issue, lamented a "communal void" that "allows the emergences of an Andrew Breitbart on the right and, occupying far less morally compromised space on the left, a figure like Julian Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks."
How telling that Assange was Hirschorn's lefty counterpart to Breitbart, not Faiz Shakir or any of the ThinkProgress bloggers who pushed the patently false smear of the Chamber on that website (never mentioned in Hirschorn's piece). Hirschorn finds a number of examples of new media derelict in the basic responsibilities of journalism, and all seem to be on the right:
Breitbart in the context of the Sherrod controversy, and his "quasi-racist attacks" on ACORN; a recent plot by a conservative group on Digg to bury stories friendly to the liberal cause (of course Hirschorn doesn't mention the Daily Kos plot to rig Google's search results in order to hurt conservatives); the use of a false photo to inflate crowd size estimates (no mention of Ed Schultz's delusional claims about the One Nation rally crowd size). Hirschorn's approach to the topic is representative of the media's general attitude towards citizen journalism: it's really bad - dangerous, even - unless of course it's pushing a story friendly to the liberal cause.