Many thousands of years ago, a Sumerian invents writing. Trembling with excitement, he transcribes a description of the events in his workshop. He has captured time! He has pinned down history! He takes the clay tablet to a friend, beaming with pride. The friend squints at the tablet, then peers at the inventor.
"What, you believe that rag?"
Which is to say that distrust of the press is rather well-established. For good reason. In the old days when big cities had a score of squabbling papers competing for the public's penny, journals made stuff up. They sat on some stories, heralded others, all to advance the interests of the party they supported. TWO DECADES OF STEADY WORK!, shouted the pro-Tammany Hall papers; COURTHOUSE CONSTRUCTION ENTERS THIRD DECADE, said the anti-Tammany sheets. Each insisted its paper was fair and true. Really. Utterly honest.
The same assertion prevails today, without the wink. Since the Second World War papers have draped themselves in the holy cloak of Objectivity. Reporters are no longer participants in the daily scrum of human events but Olympian observers who reside in the clouds, yet still note the humble ant.
This doesn't fly anymore, if it ever did. The game is up, and it's time for everyone to admit: They have a side, and they're pulling for it.
The 2004 election may be the last presidential contest in which the mainstream media sets the agenda. They've had competition in previous elections cable news, talk radio. Now it's blogs.
Bloggers have driven the Christmas in Cambodia/Lucky Hat story because they're often the obsessive sort with lots of time on their hands. They're not interested in the sort of reporting hamstrung by the demands of objectivity. (If you haven't read the story in this newspaper yet, Google it.)
Your average seasoned campaign reporter, on the other hand, has written the daily story a hundred dozen times. There's a template:
"The Candidate appeared in State A, where he leads/trails by X points, to address a cheering ground of XX,. Flanked by Governor B, who may/may not face his own challenges in the fall, The Candidate attacked his opponent for `failing to lead' and `leading toward failure' while promising he would give all Americans `the right to a future in which everyone in America is part of America.' At the same time, his opponent addressed a rally in State C, where he leads by X points, and slammed The Candidate for `flip-flopping like a fish on a dock' on curtailing/expanding prescription drug benefits for senior illegal aliens."
When you deal with stories like this every day, you may miss the importance of offhand statements. When the candidate says he got a hat from a CIA agent in Cambodia, you write it down and print it. If it sounds odd or fishy, well, what do you know. Push the issue and you might find access has dried up. Report and move on, that's the ticket.
But bloggers have no such restrictions, which is why John Kerry is dealing with the Christmas in Cambodia/Lucky Hat stories now instead of years ago. Will the issue bob a few times and sink again? Only if the dino media reel it in. The new media still don't have the heft of the big papers and the network news outlets. A million pounds of feathers spread over the nation still doesn't have the same impact as a ton of bricks dropped on the nightly news.
But if the oldsters don't give the story the same attention lavished on Bush's National Guard duty, that tells us something. It might even suggest they're pulling for Kerry. No! you say. Impossible!
Could be. Which is why it's time for the big media to do a James McGreevey! Get it off your chest! This is your truth: You believe in the principles of liberalism, and you think they'd improve the nation. Drop the pretense! Go partisan. Turn the dials up to 11, and let the bloggers keep you honest. If nothing else, it would be fun to sit on the train and look at the guy whose partisan paper screams KERRY PLANS TO INVADE SUMERIA in 90-point type.
Huh. And he believes that rag.
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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.