In the previous chapter we noted the sad state of media criticism in traditional circles and the heartening rise of online media criticism. We should do more to make it an integral part of mediactivism.
If you’re not a fan of The Daily Show’s media criticism, you’re just not paying attention. Jon Stewart and his producers routinely skewer the media, often beating traditional media and bloggers alike to the punch; the program scooped everyone with the news in November 2009 that Sean Hannity’s Fox News program had, as Daily Show producer Ramin Hedayati told PoynterOnline, “used footage from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 rally to make his [November health-care] rally look bigger…. We were surprised that no one else caught it.” (Just an inadvertent mistake, Hannity later said after admitting it.) It’s a commentary in itself that, according to several surveys, many younger adults say they get a great deal of their news from The Daily Show.
Some of the best and most ardent online criticism is coming from political partisans, though you have to keep in mind that they’re criticizing from a distinctly one-sided platform and adjust your expectations accordingly. Sites such as Media Matters for America are earning big audiences with their dedication, as that site proclaims, “to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” The site’s stated bias helps us understand its reports, which strike me as some of the most thorough of their kind, especially in their deconstructions of television news and commentary. While Media Matters is prone to hyperbole in interpreting the facts, as far as I can tell it rigorously checks those facts. Likewise, George Mason University’s Stats site, with a firmly libertarian-right world view, does useful analysis of media misuse of statistics.
People and organizations with grievances about the way they’ve been covered have better options than ever before. It’s increasingly common for companies and public figures to tell their side of stories on their own sites. Intriguingly, the Obama White House embarked on a media-criticism campaign of its own early on, specifically taking on Fox News as a propaganda machine, not a “real” journalism organization. Whether a president should be arguing with individual news operations is a separate issue, but I welcomed the administration’s effort to explain to Americans what people paying attention had already learned.
Bigger media organizations have legions of critics. (You can even find a long Wikipedia article devoted solely to criticism of the New York Times.) Yet even in smaller cities and towns, you’re likely to find someone (ideally, several people) blogging about local media. Remember the credibility scale, of course, when you read the critiques. But do read them, and decide as the facts shake out which ones are worth continuing to read.
Some might argue we have too much media criticism in a world where bloggers are constantly on the attack against what they perceive, often accurately, as inadequate journalism. But one of the healthier aspects of the rise of bloggers as media watchdogs has been the way journalists have had to start developing thicker skins—not ignoring their critics, but also not reacting with the pure defensiveness of the past. Professionals still tend to be sensitive about all this.
Happily, at least a few have started listening, and are joining the conversation on their own blogs, Twitter streams and elsewhere. The truth is that we need even more media criticism, at every level.
What drives traditional journalists especially crazy is being attacked unfairly. (Pot, meet kettle….) Comment threads under big media articles, which are so often unmoderated wastelands of evil spewings from near-sociopaths, become Exhibit A for journalists who don’t want to participate in conversations with readers. So the bias, even today, is to stay away from genuine contact with audiences. While media people are joining some conversations, they’re still avoiding genuine discussion of their own failings.
Bloggers often have skins as thin as any traditional journalist’s, and some have a tendency to respond to even mild critiques with the kind of fury that only makes them look worse. But bloggers also have an instant feedback mechanism that traditional media people rarely use: the comments. You almost never find a mass-media journalist participating in the comments on his or her organization’s website. Bloggers do tend to participate on their own sites, and on Twitter and other forums.