Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2004 / 9 Tishrei, 5765
Too many of the wrong people have too
much ability to influence public opinion too quickly?
Sometimes you can just sense the machinery of the regulatory state shifting
I sense it in what would seem an unlikely event: CBS's use of forged
documents in a story attempting to discredit President Bush's National
Paradoxically, this journalistic blunder is likely to stimulate efforts to
muzzle the conservative media, which few would accuse CBS of being part of.
For years, the contours of the country's political dialogue have been set
by the establishment media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the
three network news programs and, to a lesser extent, Time and Newsweek.
Although some will dispute the obvious, the establishment media have a
The basic dividing point between liberals and conservatives is whether
government should be doing more or less.
The news consists mostly of a litany of problems. And in the establishment
media, problems are almost always a case of government not doing enough or
not doing it well enough. Rarely is government involvement per se even
considered as a possible problem.
Conservatives could break out of this agenda-setting by the establishment
media, else Ronald Reagan would never have been president. But usually it
occurred during elections, when direct campaign communications with voters
could compete with the perspective offered by the establishment media.
But day in, day out, the establishment media led the national political
Two events this election suggest that is no longer the case.
The first was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's criticisms of Kerry's
The establishment media decided to ignore them. The Swift Boat Vets didn't
initially have much money for their ads.
Previously, that would have been the end of it. The Swift Boat Vets
wouldn't have gotten enough attention to be meaningful.
But these criticisms were picked up aggressively by the new conservative
media, most significantly talk radio and Fox News.
And they reverberated around the Internet. The Internet has become a tool
of both the left and the right. But, given the dominant agenda-setting role
of the establishment media, it has been more vital to the right.
And a story the establishment media ignored ended up effectively
undermining a central claim of the Kerry campaign: that his service in
Vietnam should give voters confidence in his resoluteness as
The second was the rapid discrediting of the CBS National Guard story.
Previously, it would have taken a very long time to establish that CBS's
documents were likely forgeries, if it ever happened at all.
With the new media, it was done in a matter of days, if not hours, and
substantially by people who a CBS executive initially dismissed as sitting
around their living rooms in their pajamas.
The establishment media's days of leading the national political dialogue
may be over.
The left is unlikely to simply accept this loss of agenda-setting power.
Even before these demonstrations of impotence, there was a growing murmur
in liberal circles about the increasing influence of conservative media and
the "unfiltered" Internet.
Last year, Bill Moyers flatly declared that the rise of conservative media,
including the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, was a threat to
Expect to see the left increasingly talk about the need to take action to
ensure the integrity of the national political dialogue.
There have already been proposals to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which
required broadcasters to balance the views expressed on their stations. In
today's environment, that would operate primarily as an affirmative action
program for liberal commentators on talk radio. John Kerry has indicted
support for its reinstatement.
But the ambition of the left to regulate the national political dialogue
likely won't be restricted to the broadcast spectrum.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court can no longer be counted on to
protect the freedom of political speech. Before McCain-Feingold, the court
had largely restricted the rationale for government regulation of political
speech to preventing corruption or the appearance thereof.
But in upholding McCain-Feingold, the court cited a variety of other
benefits, including " public participation in political debate" and "the
willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance."
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas warned that the court's reasoning could
justify restrictions on the press as well as political contributions.
In all likelihood, technology will stay more than a step ahead of any
attempt to stifle or regulate the new media. But expect the effort to be
made, and to intensify.
For the left, the lesson of the forged memos won't be that Dan Rather is a
tendentious and sloppy journalist.
For the left, the lesson will be that too many of the wrong people have too
much ability to influence public opinion too quickly.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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