August 27th, 2008 | Published in Reporting commentary
Sorry about the hiatus in blogging, but my Camry’s timing belt broke and I’ve had my head under the bonnet, or hood if you prefer – on and off ever since. I found myself thinking about the Edwards scandal and how it differed from the Lewinsky story. The MSM really got caught off guard when Matt Drudge broke a story on the Net that Newsweek had spiked. It involved the President and there was no stopping it once it was out. CNN saw Drudge as an unsavory upstart with too much power in this Jan, 1998 piece tellingly titled Pandora’s Web, and worried about ‘standards’. In the Edwards case the MSM blatantly ignored the story….but here…..I’ll let the NY and the LA times tell the story themselves:
For almost 10 months, the story of John Edwards’ affair remained the nearly exclusive province of the National Enquirer — through reports, denials, news of a pregnancy, questions about paternity and, finally, a slapstick chase through a hotel in Beverly Hills.
Political blogs, some cable networks and a few newspapers reported on it — or, more accurately, reported on The Enquirer reporting on it. Jay Leno and David Letterman made Mr. Edwards the butt of jokes on their late-night shows, but their own networks declined to report on the rumors surrounding him on the evening news. Why?
A number of news organizations with resources far greater than The Enquirer’s, like The New York Times, say they looked into the Edwards matter and found nothing solid enough to report, while others did not look at all.
Tim Rutten of that other mainstay of the MSM the LA Times in a column entitled Old Media Dethroned says:
When John Edwards admitted Friday that he lied about his affair with filmmaker Rielle Hunter, a former employee of his campaign, he may have ended his public life but he certainly ratified an end to the era in which traditional media set the agenda for national political journalism.
From the start, the Edwards scandal has belonged entirely to the alternative and new media. The tabloid National Enquirer has done all the significant reporting on it — reporting that turns out to be largely correct — and bloggers and online commentators have refused to let the story sputter into oblivion.
The big difference I see from a media perspective is that this time the MSM is fully aware that their attempts to “set the agenda” were just plain embarrassing. Structurally ‘the press,’ as in printing press, has always been recognized as having the power to set agendas. That is why the Catholic Church exercised censorship by requiring permission to print in the form of the Imprimatur and monarchs closely controlled all printing presses. But the American press at least, is coming out of a long period of exceptional success – fueled in particular by their role in the Vietnam war and Watergate. I think they crossed a line somewhere in the late 20th century where they came to believe they actually owned the agenda. The public in the meantime have come to trust them less and less. In a recent Rasmussen survey 55% of people saw political bias as a bigger problem than the influence of campaign contributions. I’ll just say it isn’t like money has a good reputation when it comes to influence.
So, bottom line, I think this incident may be a turning point where the MSM begins to recognize the limitations on its control imposed by the Internet. As we in the Blogosphere have known for some time the traditional media, as the prefer to be called, are checked by An Army of Davids. But spare a thought for the Enquirer. Its like the club footed runt who everyone is morally certain has cooties making the big handsome bully say uncle.