The New York Times decided to take the bull by the horns, and tackle Jon Stewart’s accusations of poor reporting by the media. Unfortunately, David Carr’s Rally to Shift the Blame comes off as a poorly argued, disingenuous attempt to separate the media from the message.
Carr writes, “[Stewart’s] barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers.” What Carr should know—and if he doesn’t, why is he writing for the New York Times?—is that the medium is the message. (Surely Carr has heard of Marshall McLuhan?) What the media sends out is the message we get, whether through the television, the internet, the radio, or paper.
Here’s Carr’s first attempt to make the distinction of message vs. messenger:
It was a beautiful day on the Mall, and who doesn’t like kicking the press around, but speaking of ants, media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution—not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court —seems to be above petty partisan bickering. Mr. Stewart couldn’t really go there and instead suggested it was those guys over there in the press tent who had the blood of democracy on their hands.
The problem is that Stewart never said the press was responsible for unemployment, war, or hatred. What Stewart said is that the press makes it very difficult to effect change in any of these areas, because it’s driven by ratings. From the speech Carr complains about:
We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour, politico-pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.
Stewart is absolutely right. I don’t see Tea Party rallies in person, I see what the news channels share of them; I don’t see the administration’s press conferences in full, I see what the reporters and cameras share of them. When politicians make claims, I don’t see investigation into whether the claims are credible; I see “he said, she said” coverage of claims that, if true, must come from alternate universes, since they’re radically incompatible with a shared reality.
The heart of the Stewart/Colbert message
What many media commentators, Carr among them, seem to have forgotten is that the very structure and content of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is to provide satire and critique of the media. Sure, it’s comedy, but it’s the comedy of the court jester, mixing hard truth with silliness. Truth is relatively easy to say in comedy, and relatively hard to say in the 24/7 news cycle. That’s probably why news coverage quality has devolved into its current state. (What does the media at large think inspired Colbert to coin “truthiness” as a word, and why do they think so many people immediately appropriated it?)
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are highly aware that the medium is the message, and equally aware of what drives media coverage. This rally was an attempt to expand coverage of their message by creating an event the news media could not ignore. That media might not understand their message or represent it as clearly as Stewart and Colbert would like. Still, those of us tired of seeing the media allow itself to be used by people, parties, and corporations they should be holding in check, were pleased to see that same media forced to cover an event calling them on it.
It’s all cable TV
Carr also argued against Stewart’s observation that, “We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.” Somewhat disingenuously, Carr responded:
But here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.
I call this disingenuous because since everything went digital—since broadcast news ceased to be aired and had to be obtained via cable companies—it’s all cable TV. If it’s not, it’s online, (frequently obtained through cable companies as well), and is driven by either TV channels, stations, or online “newspapers.” And more people than ever are watching the news one way or another, according to the Pew Research Center.
There are many more ways to get the news these days, and as a consequence Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade. Digital platforms are playing a larger role in news consumption, and they seem to be more than making up for modest declines in the audience for traditional platforms. As a result, the average time Americans spend with the news on a given day is as high as it was in the mid-1990s, when audiences for traditional news sources were much larger.
…The net impact of digital platforms supplementing traditional sources is that Americans are spending more time with the news than was the case a decade ago. As was the case in 2000, people now say they spend 57 minutes on average getting the news from TV, radio or newspapers on a given day. But today, they also spend an additional 13 minutes getting news online, increasing the total time spent with the news to 70 minutes. This is one of the highest totals on this measure since the mid-1990s and it does not take into account time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices.*
I think that pretty much speaks for itself.
The media should take responsibility
That same Pew report noted that, “About eight-in-ten (82%) say they see at least some bias in news coverage; by a 43%-to-23% margin, more say it is a liberal than a conservative bias.” Jon Stewart isn’t the only one to see skewed coverage, he just had a larger platform to speak out about it. It’s not bias that’s the problem, though, it’s the choice of what’s covered, the style of presentation, the lack of critical evaluation of the data being presented.
Sure, we like seeing conflict and meltdowns. It’s sad but true that it’s more exciting to see someone rudely yell “You lie!” at the President, than to learn whether it was or was not a lie. Whatever side you’re on, you’re more easily engaged by the strong emotions of outrage or support. But shouldn’t at least as much coverage as the video clip be provided about the truth behind the furor? It shouldn’t be necessary to dig deeply online while watching the news to discover the truth behind the news. If it’s not informing us, it’s less news and more entertainment.
My personal plea to the news media: We are fully capable of being engaged and enlightened at the same time. Please, don’t turn a necessary critique into another conflict. Help us be the educated populace we need to be to defend ourselves against those with more power and bigger pockets.
* The increased attention to news is good for the New York Times web site. From the Pew Research Center: “This year, 17% of Americans say they read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13% in 2008 and 9% in 2006.”
12 September 2010. Americans Spending More Time Following the News, Pew Research Center. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1725/where-people-get-news-print-online-readership-cable-news-viewers
Carr, David, 31 October 2010. Rally to Shift the Blame, The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/01/business/media/01carr.html