Poison Pill: The Media Today

"Someone is trying to make us look bad." That seems to be the message for Patrick D. Healy in this New York Times editorial on the media's credibilty. (Hat tip: Democracy for the Middle East.)

For Healy, the operative metaphor is the case of the cyanide-laced Tylenol from way back in the 1980's. I'll let Patrick explain:
SO many Americans apparently now see journalists as self-interested, careerist and unprofessional that perhaps it would make sense for media executives to call up another group of bosses who once faced fundamental questions about their product: the makers of Tylenol in the 1980's.

After all, Johnson & Johnson proved that credibility, not to mention market share, could be regained after scandal - in its case, a series of deaths caused by cyanide-laced capsules some 20 years ago. Part of the strategy was to portray the company as a victim in its own right.

But as Healy admits a few lines later, "It would be hard for the media to pitch itself as a innocent victim of its own shortcomings."

No one is secretly stuffing bad reporting into the TV and print media while the editors' backs are turned. The MSM have only themselves to blame for the state of affairs, and they don't have much time to fix the problem.

And there's the key concept that Healy misses: this is not a PR issue, it is a quality issue. The media need to fix the problem, not just improve their image. Or to return to the Tylenol metaphor, they need to imagine that every newscast, every newspaper, every magazine is a bottle of pills, which is going to be ingested by the consumer. They need to make it their business - their responsibility, their personal mission - to ensure that the product contained therein is nothing but the purest "medicine". This will be a bit more complicated than adding a new layer of shrink-wrap to the packaging.

And here's where the New York Times ventures into territory charted by Neo-Neocon.

Healy writes: "With credibility in mind, several news executives are now trying to limit the use of anonymous sources." A-ha! Now perhaps we are getting somewhere. How long has this practice been with us, anyway?

Neo writes:
Well, it turns out you can blame it on Watergate.

The recent prominence of anonymous sources in the Newsweek Koran-flushing story tweaked my curiosity about the history of the practice.

To the best of my recollection, the newspapers of my youth attributed every quote to an actual named person--not that I was paying a whole lot of attention at the time to subtleties like that. Now, however, it seems as though articles are often merely glorified gossip columns full of anonymous commentary--a sort of "he said, he said" kind of journalism--especially any article written by Seymour Hersch, which usually consists of nothing but a long string of such tidbits.

The only thing we know for sure is the identity of the article's author. We are asked to take the facts on trust, without a chance to evaluate the source of the remarks. This over-reliance on the anonymous source gives both the journalist and his/her informant an overwhelming power, and takes away our ability to judge the veracity of what we are being told. I believe it's one of the most pernicious trends in journalism.

This practice seems to be the logical development of a phenomenon that started with Vietnam and became stronger with Watergate. ...

As usual, Neo nails it. Read her whole post - it's beautifully written, carefully thought out, and meticulously researched. But meanwhile, back at the Times, the thought of breaking that anonymous quote addiction is already giving Healy fits of withdrawal:
But reducing anonymous sources could have its limitations. Many journalists, believe it could undermine the ability to get at the truth that so many readers and viewers believe the media is missing or trying to avoid.

And even if the news media outlets were squeaky clean, somehow freed of all human failings, there would still be Americans whose biases would lead them to distrust the media.

("Whew! Well, I guess we're off the hook. If we stop using anonymous quotes, we won't be able to get at the truth ... and anyway, folks love us for our imperfections, right?")

"Many journalists believe ... " You see? He can't even write an editorial about anonymous sources without quoting an anonymous source.

If the MSM really wanted to clean up their act, they might follow these sensible guidelines, devised by prominent journalists in a 2003 Poynter report:

• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.

• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.

• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.

• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.

• The source must have first-hand knowledge.

• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.

(Hat tip, again, to Neo.) These are sensible guidelines, a first step towards curbing the use of anonymous sources. They do not "undermine" jounalists' ability to get the truth out, they enhance it.

But this isn't what the New York Times wants to hear. And so, after bravely facing up to the enormity of the problem, Patrick Healy retreats into utter denial. The last lines of his column are almost painful to read:
And even if the news media outlets were squeaky clean, somehow freed of all human failings, there would still be Americans whose biases would lead them to distrust the media.

Analysts say that the political partisans who are most likely to be critical of the press are also among the most reliable and hungry consumers of the news.

Maybe therein is a silver lining: if the people who distrust you the most are also many of your most devoted customers, perhaps survival is assured. They have accepted flaws as part of the bargain of following the news.

Well, there's the sound of confidence for you. Especially that last paragraph - "maybe" and "perhaps" in the same sentence! And maybe, perhaps, I might possibly be the Queen of the Space Unicorns. There's always hope, right?

Earth to the MSM: The public doesn't trust you. Deal with it. You folks at the New York Times want the public to "trust" you? Listen, I'll let you in on a secret: My readers don't trust me, either - and I don't expect them to. That's the whole idea. I have to earn their confidence, and keep it, every single day.

No one is perfect, and the human mind is limited. Sometimes a thing can look like one thing, and be something else, or nothing at all. (Ask me about green lasers and Coptic Christian murders.) What bloggers demand of themselves - because their audiences demand it of them - is a commitment to openly acknowledging past errors and learning from them. And even more, a commitment to getting the story right the first time.

"Scrutiny is intense. The Internet amplifies professional sins, and spreads the word quickly. And when a news organization confesses its shortcomings, it only draws more attention." No kidding. The internet does exactly the same thing to us bloggers - that's why we treat our medium, and our audience, with the utmost respect. "Also, there is no unified front - no single standard of professionalism, no system of credentials." All respectable bloggers live by a strict code that forbids concealing our errors or reporting dubious "facts". This "single standard of professionalism" - and its attendant "unified front" - may soon become more concrete with the help of Roger Simon and the nascent Pajamas Media organization.

As I've said before, a growing segment of the population are willing to take a cue from Neo's cinematic namesake by "swallowing the red pill" and awakening from the pseudo-reality of the media matrix. The problem for the media, then, is not one of image, but of substance. The mainstream media must adapt to a more critical and demanding public - or face extinction.