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Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2005 /12 Adar I 5765

John Leo

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Making media accountable

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Most people realize that the news media do not just report. They frame and package the news. Stories reflect the mind-set and values of the newsroom. This packaged world is now under heavy assault, partly because different packaging is available (Fox News, talk radio), partly because a strong unpackaging industry has arisen (bloggers, bolder anti-Establishment voices in academia and traditional media).

For instance, last year the very smart political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio completely unwrapped the orthodox newsroom view of religion and politics.

They described the basic media view this way: "The Christian right, having infiltrated the Republican Party, is importing its divisive religious ideas into our public life, whereas the Democratic Party is the neutral camp of tolerant and pluralistic Americans." Writing in First Things magazine, the authors conclude that secularists and religious people have been struggling against each other for many years, but in the newsroom accounts, one struggler (secularism) essentially disappears, leaving the religious side as oddly divisive people who want to take over the culture and "impose" (vote) their values. The authors believe newsrooms have been partisan in the debate for many years, partly because so many reporters are Democrats who do not go to church and do not fully understand that secularism is basically an aggressive quasi religion now central to the core constituency of the Democratic Party. Some Democrats (i.e., Hillary Rodham Clinton) are beginning to understand this. When she said recently that believers have the right to live out their faith in the public square, she was taking dead aim at the secularist goal of banishing religion from public life.

In the Eason Jordan story, we have something new: retroframing, or the sad attempt to reimpose a discredited frame. Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, said something on a panel (we still don't know exactly what), the gist of which was that U.S. soldiers had deliberately shot at journalists in Iraq. This was a serious charge, particularly coming from one of CNN's high priests, but the major media essentially looked the other way for many days, thus signaling that nothing important had happened. But bloggers descended quickly, demanding to see the unreleased videotape of the panel and asking about Jordan's evidence. Jordan "walked [the story] back," as one commentator said, meaning that he softened what he apparently had said. But he resigned, essentially because of the case made by the bloggers.

Blog flap. Here's the retroframing: Some mainstream media fell back on their traditional view of bloggers as inaccurate, upstart nobodies who dare to criticize their betters. Last week, for instance, the New York Times, which had looked the other way for two weeks, ran a story dripping with disdain. Headlined "Bloggers as News Media Trophy Hunters," it offered a simple-minded view of bloggers as wild conservatives out to collect liberal scalps. The story was laced with quotes assuring us that bloggers are a "lynch mob" of "salivating morons," fanning fears of "the growing power of rampant, unedited dialogue" on the Internet (as opposed to the completely reliable and unrampant reports in mainstream media).

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To make its case, the Times gave a sanitized account of Jordan's comment on his panel and made no mention of two Democratic politicians, Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Christopher Dodd, who were present at the panel and told the press they were aghast at what they heard Jordan say. Dropping Frank and Dodd from the story upheld the theme of out-of-control conservatives descending on famously liberal CNN. Jordan's explanation that he was talking about mistakes and collateral damage caused by U.S. forces was directly contradicted by Frank, an antiwar liberal, who told the New York Sun that Jordan had said "he knew of about 12 journalists who had not only been killed by American troops but had been targeted as a matter of policy." Nothing like this appeared in the Times.

Why some in mainstream media keep depicting bloggers as inaccurate is a mystery. In the blogs I follow, accuracy is crucially important, and errors have to be admitted quickly, usually on the day of the mistake. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com suggests that mainstream media might want to hire some bloggers to check their stories before publication. This is a cheeky but polite reminder that bloggers are in the checking business and big media should get used to having someone looking over their shoulder. different.

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JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.

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