Thursday, April 21, 2005

Big Media's Favorite Fallacy

Leonard Downie Jr., the Washington Post's executive editor gave a speech (warning link probably won't work very long) Tuesday in which he said "don't bet on" large media becoming irrelevant to the national dialogue. I'm inclined to agree with that sentiment, but there are quite a few things in the speech that bugged me. I'll write about a few more of them when I get back from court (more on that later, too).

The most immediate rhetorical error in Downie's speech is his adoption of a fallacy that is commonly advanced by many professional writers and editors: our critics did or believe this stupid thing, therefore, their criticism is irrelevant. This is a perfectly illogical but it also happens to be a distortion as well. Quoting Downie:

As Washington Post journalist Dana Milbank wrote recently, "outlets once seen as alternative have become a new mainstream media. Conservatives tune in to Rush Limbaugh (who has 20 million weekly listeners) or Sean Hannity (who has 12 millions) and log on to the Drudge Report (which claims 10 million daily visitors on the Internet). Liberals opt for the late-night commentary of Jon Stewart, Web sites such as Salon and Daily Kos, and films of Michael Moore. Those on either side can scan the Google’s news headlines and click on those that fit their worldview."

It should not be surprising, as a result, that a majority of the Bush voters in the last election still believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and close ties to al Qaeda, while many who voted against him are convinced that he was coached during the presidential debates via a transmitter that made a bulge in the back of his suit jacket.

Not satisfied with these opinionated alternative media choices, activists on the both the right and the left have been putting increasing pressure on the mainstream news media to slant the news toward their point of view. When that does not happen, these activists then attack the news media as being biased.

Critics on the right have charged that the coverage of the war in Iraq was mostly negative, for example. But a comprehensive study for the Project for Excellent in Journalism of coverage of the war by 16 daily newspapers, the morning and evening news shows on the four major television networks, 9 different cable news shows and 9 different Web sites showed that the majority of the war coverage was either neutral or positive.

Critics on the left, meanwhile, have charged that the mainstream news media let President Bush off easy during the 2004 election campaign. But studies showed that the coverage by major newspapers and television networks was, in fact, somewhat tougher on Bush than on John Kerry, which should be expected when a President is seeking a second term and the election is something of a referendum on his record in office.

Unfortunately, though, most of these arguments are canards. Yes, it's true, there were a few people in the media who kept saying the American-led coalition was going to lose the initial war, but by and large, most of the coverage was pretty free from that type of poor analysis. In fact, had Downie bothered to do some research on this point, he'd have noticed that back in April of 2003, the Media Research Center gave only one national news anchor out of eight a grade of F. The rest got As and Bs.

And really, how many liberals are there out there who really believe that President Bush had a prompt box in his suit during the first debate? I think there was some base-manipulating rhetoric to that effect but no sane person seriously believes in the Bush box.

As for Downie's third point, he is correct that Bush came off worse in media coverage than Senator Kerry. He attributes this to the fact that Bush was running for reelection. That's only partly true. I will be updating this post when I get some time to reflect that.