On Ed Driscoll’s ‘Atlas Mugged,’ and Breaking Old Media’s Stranglehold

September 23rd, 2007 12:39 PM

There's a fabulous column by Ed Driscoll (HT to NixGuy in an e-mail) about the evolution of media and reporting from the invention of radio to our current circumstances.

It's the title of Driscoll's work, "Atlas Mugged: How a Gang of Scrappy, Individual Bloggers Broke the Stranglehold of the Mainstream Media," that misses the mark a bit.

Ed has the "stranglehold" part nailed:

By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networks’ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaper’s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).

Up until the Reagan years, Love (Shannon Love at Chicago Boyz) says, “definitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.” These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed “Gray Lady” largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, “If the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, they’d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.”

It's hard to underestimate how important technology constraints were to Old Media's control. To be in the game, you needed to have a printing press, broadcast spectrum, and/or boots on the ground. A very few entities had effective control over all three.

In the early 1980s, I originally thought that cable television would be the tech development that would break that stranglehold. But it never happened. The same entities that controlled the news before cable simply extended that control into the new medium, and co-opted the few who had beaten the odds and created a new presence. Thus did Ted Turner, the scrappy, feisty entrepreneur, morph into an especially offensive Old Media hack, and his original CNN creation into a 24-hour version of the Big Three Networks' Evening News biasfests.

The stranglehold really didn't start to loosen until about a half-decade after cable TV became significant:

Journalism by consensus remained essentially unchallenged until President Ronald Reagan—arguably the most media-savvy president in American history — repealed the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987. That opened the door for “talk radio.”

AM radio had been considered largely obsolete thanks to clear, stereophonic FM. But then along came Rush Limbaugh. Having been largely ignored by and shut out of other media, conservatives began to follow his example, and soon came to dominate AM talk radio. Politically, the consequences were soon far-reaching; in fact, many credit Limbaugh’s persuasive presence for the GOP’s congressional triumph in 1994.

Think of talk radio as the bridge to today's blogosphere. Some will find the analogy annoying, but in hindsight I see Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and the other earlier talkers as, in essence, the first bloggers, only via audio, and their shows' callers as the equivalent of blog commenters. I think the talk-radio-as-blog analogy is important to remember, because if the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" is ever reimposed on television and radio, the blogosphere will become its next target.

Getting back to Driscoll's premise -- That the original audio and now-digital bloggers have indeed ended the stranglehold of Old Media is mostly, but by no means totally, true. Conditions are indeed much improved compared to the truly-strangled world of the early 1970s. There are plenty of viable alternatives to newspapers. There are video outlets like YouTube, as well as a growing group of feisty videobloggers generating original content. But it should be clear that the process of ending the stranglehold, and ultimately neutering the deliberate distorters, is nowhere near complete.

That's because there's still the matter of initial and early-stage reporting. News consumers remain, for the most part, at the mercy of the wire services, elitist reporters, the major networks, and favored PR operations (like the one that, with avid Old Media cooperation, created the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon) for the first coverage of events and world developments.

As important as Rathergate was in showing the emperors' lack of clothes, it was nevertheless a reaction to an original Old Media report first seen by millions. Its patent falsehood was only overcome with persistent, Herculean efforts by dozens of debunkers.

As important as media watchdogs like NewsBusters and Hot Air are, they too are for most part reactive. Many media-driven memes survive scrutiny. For example, the bogus "Food Stamp Challenge" spreads from town to town across the land, despite being exposed and debunked, time and time again, as a dishonest, PR-driven publicity stunt, because Hercules isn't available. No one has the time or resources to counteract more than a small portion the wave of distorted, biased economic and business reporting thrown at us on a daily basis by the likes of the Associated Press and Bloomberg. At the cultural level, preconceived notions about those with even mildly conservative viewpoints get embedded with regularity, and are rarely challenged; the challenges that do take place only occasionally become known beyond a narrow group of the already converted.

Some chinks have developed in the initial news dominators' armor. Blatantly biased reporting from Iraq by the wire services has mellowed some during the past year. This has occurred in no small part because of the presence of onsite milbloggers and alternative reporters like Michael Yon, Pat Dollard, and others. In addition to creating their own original reports, they are also serving as monitors who will catch the most egregious distortions the wire services attempt. But theirs are heroic efforts that cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Institutions are evolving that appear to have the potential to break the nearly iron grip Old Media still has on initial reporting. And it will take institutions, however defined, to do that job. Progress has, for the most part, been glacial. Much faster, please.


Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.