Sydney Papers

By Tom Switzer 

A regrettable by-product of today's media, especially on the internet, has been its frequent lack of decency and respect. The Washington Post's David Broder rose above such vitriol as a veteran political reporter in the US, which is one reason why so many who read his writings or watched him on Sunday television have been mourning his death over the past week.

Broder – who addressed the Sydney Institute in 2005 -- was one of the best reporters and sober analysts of politics. Among other things, he took ideas and politics seriously. He was not one of those pundits who say things merely to shock and score hits on blogs. He did not impugn motives; he answered arguments. In this, he was the Paul Kelly of American politics -- a model newspaper journalist. Although one should not exaggerate the importance of journalists in our society, I do believe leading lights of the Fourth Estate help set the tone for our political discourse. David Broder set the right example.

So, given the subject matter this evening, perhaps it is appropriate that I refer you to an article Broder wrote in the Washington Post in September 2004.

During that year's election campaign, the US media world was engulfed in scandal. CBS News and veteran anchor and journalist Dan Rather produced a purported photocopy of an explosive 30-year-old order signed by a dead man to discredit George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard. Once copies of the documents were made available on the internet and scrutinsed by outside sources – led by, of all things, -- their authenticity was quickly called into question.

Much of this was based on the fact that the documents were written on modern typographic conventions unavailable on military typewriters of the early 1970s. The memos were revealed to be a forgery. And the source was someone with a grudge against the President. Instead of being treated with the deep cynicism he deserved by the reporters to whom he sold his story, the dodgy source was used liberally by CBS News to hurt Bush's re-election campaign.

The scandal became known as "Rathergate". And the producer and host himself – Dan Rather, a central pillar of the mainstream media in the US for four decades -- eventually resigned.

For David Broder, such shoddy journalistic ethics were blamed on bloggers:

"When the Internet opened the doors to scores of [so-called] 'journalists' who had no allegiance at all to the sceptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organisations. That is how it happened that old pros such as Dan Rather ... got caught up in this fevered atmosphere and let their standards slip. It is hard to overcome the sense that the professional practices and code of responsibility in journalism have suffered a body blow."

Is this really true? Should the Internet, or blogosphere, be blamed for the proliferation of declining journalistic standards? Do bloggers and web writers lack the "skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering" that all too often marked the mainstream media for years?

I think Broder made fair points in his column, but I also think he overstated his case for several reasons.

All things considered, the rise of the web and talk radio in recent years has been a welcome change in the public debate both in Australia and America. Here are three of them:

First, history. Like many establishment journalists, Broder failed to put the rise of the blogosphere in its proper historic context. Indeed, it's hard to convey today what it was like 50 years ago in both Australia and the US. There were obviously no radio talkback programs, no websites or blogs, no opinion pages such as The Australian which I edited, hardly any opinion magazines such as the Spectator Australia, which I now edit. Newspapers, especially in Australia, were mostly dull and parochial. The only opinion was the newspaper's leader or editorial, sometimes published off the front page.

For decades in both the US and Australia, media sophisticates essentially controlled the political debate, kicking in the same direction like an ugly version of the Rockettes. In recent years, however, the lid on political correctness has been lifted, more ideological diversity is tolerated, and the political debate has become more open. The cultural landscape is no longer as flat and unvaried as the proverbial Australian sheep station.

Second, that diversity of opinion on the airwaves and in the blogophere means a media that is more representatives of their nation. More diversity, more debate, and more voices. The Internet's most powerful effect has been to expand vastly the range of opinion – especially right-of-centre opinion – at virtually everyone's fingertips. It helps break up the traditional cultural gatekeeper power to determine what's important and the range of acceptable opinion.

In the old days, you wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and it would take days to get published — if it ever was — and then it was sliced and diced by cultural gatekeepers who often viewed conservatism as a mental affliction. These days, you can have your say on most talk shows just by ringing up the 'open line', or writing a blog or contributing to a web site discussion – regardless of one's ideological tastes.

(I have, for what it's worth, several favourite sites. In the US, they include James Taranto's Best of the Web on the Wall Street Journal editorial page site as well as Real Clear Politics, which links to the leading editorials and opeds of the day in America and abroad. In Australia, they include Gerard Henderson's Media Watch Dog and Andrew Bolt's site with the Herald Sun. Incidentally, February is the shortest month, yet reader support helped Bolt crack the 2 million mark again for page views.)

Third, this new diversity of opinion means greater scrutiny and accountability of everything – from the political class to the establishment media itself. I've already discussed the Dan Rather scandal in 2004, a media watershed. But other important internet-fuelled political and media stories come to mind.

Several years ago the Republican Senator Trent Lott made some comments that seemed to praise segregationist politics at onetime Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. It was a low key event, but the news got out. Blogosphere indignation -- driven in part by mainstream conservative outlets such as National Review Online -- set the media trend. It shaped the mainstream media's coverage of that controversy. The result: Lott was forced to retire as Senate majority leader.

The Internet has also made media bias harder to pull off. According to Brian Anderson in City Journal, it was the blogosphere's army of ombudsmen that revealed Enron-bashing Paul Krugman's former ties to Enron; that revealed how much the New York Times twisted its polls to further its liberal agenda; that showed the many outrageous fabrications of journalist Jayson Blair, who was hired and defended consistently by Times management because of affirmative action. That final saga culminated in the resignation of Times editor Howell Raines.

One blog Krugman Truth Squad – a collection of conservative economic analysis led by National Review's Donald Luskin – showed how the leading Times columnist and Pulitzer prize winning economist would sometimes make mistakes. According to Anderson, in 2003 the Truth Squad caught Krugman comparing the cost of Bush's tax cuts over 10 years with the one-year wage boost associated with the new employment it would create, so as to make the tax reductions seem insanely large for the small benefit they'd bring. Whether it was a laughably ignorant mistake or a deliberate attempt to mislead in order to discredit Bush, the point here it was a mistake and it was picked by the bloggers.

All things considered, I believe all of this is to the good.

Still, it is also worth acknowledging the downsides to the blogosphere; and one would be very unwise to downplay David Broder's legitimate concerns about slipping standards in the media world.

Like talk radio, the blogosphere can be flippant and provocative. Some bloggers, too, admittedly tend towards the angry. Consider some of the following examples:

ABC The Drum on Christopher Pyne. Recall that extraordinary personal attack on the ABC's The Drum website which depicted the South Australian Liberal frontbencher as the most loathed man in Australia. The author Marieke Hardy hoped Pyne would, among other things, "get attacked by a large and libidinous dog". The article was subsequently pulled from the site, but the episode raised legitimate concerns why the offensive piece was put online in the first place.

Comments section of Crikey and The Drum: I rarely read the comments section of these web sites. When I do -- usually in response to articles I myself have written or in which I am the subject -- the response is very crude and sometime very rude. It's all about attacking, abusing and delegitimizing the author. Most of the contributors ignore the liberal anti-communist Sidney Hook's wise rule for polemics: "Before you impugne someone's motives, even when they may be legitimately impugned, answer their arguments."

Responsibility/Wikileaks Julian Assange and Wikileaks have received a great deal of praise for revealing US government secrets. But with power comes responsibility: where was the responsibility in outing the dozens of Afghan civilians in the document dump as US military informants? Their lives, as well as those of their entire families, have been at terrible risk of Taliban reprisal. On the other hand, keep in mind that the New York Times and The Guardian, among other more respectable and responsible newspapers, deleted the names for publication. Why? Lives could be in danger.

US online controversy re Palin and assassination In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Gibbords in January, left-wing bloggers led by Daily Kos online smeared conservatives -- Sarah Palin, shock jocks and right-wing bloggers -- by suggesting they incited the shooting. Remarkably, mainstream writers and the press and television, both in the US and abroad, including here in Australia, rushed to join in the hyperbole, blaming Palin or the Tea Party movement or the right-wing bloggers. Leading Times liberal columnist Krugman wrote of a "climate of hate" within hours of the shooting. Yet there was no basis whatsoever for suggesting conservatives caused the shooting of Giffords. The shooter was, if anything, of the Left, did not listen to talk back radio, had no connection to Palin or the Tea Party, was psychologically unhinged. This prompted Time magazine to comment: "Informed and insightful political commentary has never been more abundant and easily available, thanks to the Internet. Yet the voices of the sensationalists are louder than ever."

What, then, does all this mean? Well, I think it means that like talkback radio, the blogosphere is also a source of argument, information, different schools of thought and democracy in action. But, like talk radio, the blogosphere can be flippant and provocative. Some bloggers, too, admittedly tend towards the angry. Still, all things considered, the bloggers have given a voice to the once-silenced group of people. And that is a good thing for democracy and media.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.