Friday, November 12, 2004
Authority can be a function of raw power, but among free people it is sustained by esteem and trust. Should esteem and trust falter, the public will start to contest an institution's authority. It happens all the time to political figures. It happened here to the American Catholic Church and to the legal profession, thanks to plaintiff-bar abuse. And now the public is beginning to contest the decades-old authority of the mainstream media.
Two months ago, Gallup reported that public belief in the media's ability to report news accurately and fairly had fallen to 44%--what Gallup called a significant drop from 54% just a year ago. The larger media outlets have been pushing the edge of the partisanship envelope for a long time. People have kvetched about "spin" for years but then largely internalized it. Not in 2004. Big Media chose precisely the wrong moment to give itself over to an apparent compulsion to overthrow the Bush presidency.
This was the election that brought the reality of the Information Age to politics, not just the promise. Most of us, but especially voters in battleground states like Ohio and Florida, were engulfed with political inputs. TV commercials, canned phone calls, Internet ads, Web logs, partisan 527s, talk radio and of course cable news.
A survey by the Pew Research Center reports that over three years from January 2000, the percentage of people getting candidate and campaign news fell 9% for daily newspapers, 10% for network news and 5% for news magazines. The numbers rose, up to 4%, for cable news, the Internet and comedy TV shows (Jon Stewart's rise as a news authority figure is the court jester displacing the journalistic monarchy).
In a post-2004 election report, Pew and the University of Michigan jointly note that this past summer, 40% of Internet users pulled down political information, a significant increase over the 2000 election. And not merely, as is often assumed, to ride with their own political posses. "Wired Americans are more aware than non-Internet users of all kinds of arguments," Pew concluded, "even those that challenge their preferred candidates and issue positions."
The genie will not go back into the bottle. It will be interesting to see what it's like living in a country where all or most of the news sources are clearly partisan. But on the other hand, it's probably a more honest place to be! And now, the MSM, who felt it was a fourth unofficial branch of the checks and balances now has its own branch of checks and balances checking it.