- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

Over the past 10 years or so, one of the most commonly asked questions in media circles is why the public seems to be increasingly tuning out and unsubscribing from America‘s establishment media.

Various reasons have been offered, including the emergence of interactive media, increased work hours, more commuting - all of which aren’t without merit.

One explanation that usually isn’t discussed is that, just maybe, the public is sick of the media picking and choosing what they think is news.

While it is amusing to see journalists who oppose government media intervention on behalf of the public arrogating that privilege to themselves, we’d all be better off without the laughs because it is frustrating the national discourse.

Instead of reporting the news, far too many journalists have now taken it upon themselves to protect the public from it.

In the recent past, media self-censorship was pretty near impossible to get around, except in towns where two or more newspapers with differing ideologies circulated.

With the advent of the Internet, however, dissatisfied news consumers have a world of alternative sources. And they’re leaving in droves.

Who can blame them? If you wanted to see good news from Iraq until very recently, you pretty much had to turn to the blogosphere or read the official government reports on the Web.

If you wanted to see the brutal decapitation of Nick Berg by Islamic radicals, you had to go online.

Ditto if you wanted to find out the party affiliation of Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former Democratic governor of New York. Bill Clinton’s infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky was buried news until Internet impresario Matt Drudge brought it to light.

The reasons for this self-censorship are many, but perhaps foremost is pure politics.

While the three broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC identified Mr. Spitzer as a Democrat in the midst of his prostitution scandal just 20 percent of the time, they did so 100 percent of the time for Republican Sen. David Vitter and Sen. Larry Craig during their sex-related scandals.

This unfortunate trend has manifested itself in spades in the case of former Democratic senator and presidential candidate John Edwards and his 2006 affair with campaign staffer Rielle Hunter.

Instead of jumping on the allegation when it first emerged in October, America’s elite media blithely ignored it, aside from a few reports that Mr. Edwards (falsely) denied he had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife.

Journalistic pooh-bahs are falling over themselves to issue excuses for the media’s failure. The most common justification has been the story’s provenance, the tabloid newspaper National Enquirer.

“I’m not going to recycle a supermarket tabloid’s anonymously sourced story,” New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller said when asked why he directed staff to make only “fairly cursory inquiries” into the matter.

Mr. Keller should have done otherwise, especially since the Enquirer’s scoops have steered media coverage in the past stories, such as Rush Limbaugh’s drug addiction (which was reported almost immediately after the Enquirer broke the story by most big news organizations), O.J. Simpson’s trial, and many celebrity gossip stories.

Of course, while the Enquirer has been correct on some occasions, its stories shouldn’t be reported carte blanche.

The McClatchy News Service struck the right balance on this, investigating the allegations and filing substantive reports on them, treating the initial Enquirer story as the equivalent of a reader tip. It was the only major news outlet to do so before Mr. Edwards admitted to the affair on Friday.

That is pretty sad considering that the scandal was being talked about almost everywhere on the Web. Blogs left and right discussed the issue for weeks. Even the late-night talk shows of Jay Leno and David Letterman had the scoop.

Besides the origins of the Edwards affair story, another factor often cited by media apologists for why it was ignored has been a smaller budget for investigative reporting that many news organizations have now. In an era where newspapers, television networks and radio stations are facing big pressures to cut expenditures, money for hard reporting is tough to come by.

While it is true that there is less money now for investigative reports, this answer makes no sense in the case of Mr. Edwards’ affair since the story was something the public very much wanted to hear about.

It’s understandable to take a pass on investigating corruption in the city sanitation department. It’s ridiculous to do the same on a story about a presidential candidate conducting an affair with a staffer and allegedly abusing campaign resources, especially when you know it is a topic likely to increase circulation and ad revenue.

In far too many newsrooms, the question is no longer about serving the public’s right to know but protecting the public from things it wants to know. No wonder they’re looking elsewhere.

  • Matthew Sheffield is a Web consultant and creator of NewsBusters.org. E-mail: msheffield.times@gmail.com.
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