Historically Unaccountable Old Media Complains of Unaccountable New Media

It seems that the vast majority of journalists who bemoan unaccountable, unabashedly opinionated digital reporting are the same ones who have, without challenge, pushed a liberal perspective through their own reporting.

The latest such journalist, Newsweek's Howard Fineman, is concerned that "nobody is cross-examining" the "position papers" that supposedly comprise a critical mass of new media journalism. Of course without new media, Fineman's position papers would be virtually immune from meaningful cross examination.

His position is common among the media's old guard: accountability for thee, but not for me. This view stems both from a sort of meta-double standard: Fineman and his ilk extrapolate a few bad apples among the new media crowd into a larger trend of malfeasance, while treating instances of journalistic malpractice among old media reporters as isolated incidents that have no real bearing on Old Media's accountability (or lack thereof).

The double standard has existed for some time. Matt Lewis recalls a comical (given what we now know) quote from CBS News exec Jonathan Klein in the aftermath of the 2004 "MemoGate" scandal:

"You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at '60 Minutes'] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

In that instance, the mainstream media finally did take their cues from bloggers, and in so doing finally got the story right. The blogosphere was hardly intimidated.

Helen Thomas has bemoaned the ability of new media journalists to "ruin lives [and] reputations." But what of George W. Bush's reputation? Had new media reporters not kept Rather accountable, the fabricated story may have cost Bush the presidency.

There are of course a plethora of other examples of such malfeasance. What of John McCain's reputation, sullied by a contrived New York Times hit job during the 2008 campaign that alleged he had had an affair with a lobbyist? Who was keeping the Gray Lady accountable?

Lewis goes on to concisely but thoroughly dispel the myth that online media are inherently less accountable than old:

Ultimately, bloggers must establish their own credibility if they are to be trusted. As such, they have an incentive to strive for accuracy. But should the accurate and honorable ones face constant criticism that should rightly be aimed at the irresponsible ones?...

For better or worse (and trust me, I could do without some of the comments people leave on my blogs), online writers and bloggers are much more accountable to readers than was the case in the supposedly halcyon days of traditional journalism. It is a mistake to yearn for a time when the only hope a reader had of responding to a "serious" journalist was submitting a letter to the editor and hoping it got published.

New media provide a level of accountability sorely lacking until very recently by giving voice to those who don't share the media elite's political outlook. Far be it from me to presume that Fineman and Thomas are consciously trying to undermine those forces. But at the very least, they seem ignorant of the need for that accountability--they assume that the legacy media are by their nature accountable.

But Lewis believes that it is the watchdog role of digital journalism that has provoked these criticisms. After all, Fineman, Thomas, and the rest have been without a counterbalancing force for so long. They are a collective thorn in the side of a journalistic establishment that is used to injecting its own worldview into its reporting without meaningful challenge.

As campaign strategist and former manager of Townhall.com Chuck DeFeo puts in to Lewis:

"As bloggers have expanded their audience and their influence, their ability to impact public opinion has become as strong as some in the mainstream media. With that influence comes the likelihood that some in power not only won't like what you have to say but, more importantly, they now need to respond."

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