Opinion: Media Mangle

Why Mainstream Media Losing Credibility

Blogs tell consumers about events that mainstream reporters ignore

It’s no wonder the public’s confidence in the mainstream media is at an historic low, especially among that part of the public that also reads blogs. A story in Monday’s News & Observer of Raleigh is a good example of why this decline is occurring.

In a front-page story, Lawrence M. O’Rourke of the N&O’s Washington bureau, speculates on the political damage possible to Republicans based on their actions regarding Terri Schiavo in Florida. “Politicians incur risks for Schiavo,” is the headline, and the politicians, of course, are Republicans who, in O’Rourke’s words “appear to be paying a steep price for it among the broad mainstream of Americans.”

There is no evidence to support O’Rourke’s claim. No poll (not even a widely criticized ABC poll) is cited. No numbers are given. No evidence is even hinted at. The only attribution is that “some analysts” feel that Republicans, while cementing their standing with the religious right, have damaged their standing with moderates. No analysts are named or quoted.

It gets worse. In the fourth paragraph of the story O’Rourke says the “political implications of the Schiavo case surfaced with the discussion on the Senate floor of an unsigned memo to Republican lawmakers that it ‘was a great political issue’” for Republicans.

The story goes on to quote Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as saying he “condemned the content of the memo.” But the clear implication in this story is that this was a memo distributed by Republicans in Congress to take political advantage of the Schiavo case.

Readers of blog sites over the past week or so, however, know that this memo’s provenance is certainly in question. ABC News, which first broke the story of the memo, has since said it has no idea who wrote it and, therefore, can’t say it was written or distributed by Republicans. The memo is not on any letterhead and even contains errors in the naming of the bill related to Schiavo. Adding to the suspicion factor, The New York Times has reported the document was distributed by Democrats, not Republicans.

Still, The Washington Post chimed in, calling it a “memo distributed to Republicans.” ABC News called it a “GOP talking points memo” even though there was no such title on the spurious document. Eventually it was noticed that most of the “talking points” were taken verbatim from the web site of the Traditional Values Coalition, indicating that whoever created the memo did not spend much time doing any serious political thinking, another reason to suspect a dirty trick.

All of this was known last week. But it didn’t prevent O’Rourke, and other reporters, from writing about the memo in a vacuum, never mentioning the suspicion that surrounds it. This is important because this memo, and some questionable polls, make up the cudgel that Democrats and liberals in general have been using to beat Republicans about the head, and to support their contention that the GOP leadership was not sincere in wanting to help Schiavo.

Traditional journalists have exhibited widespread skepticism and even resentment about bloggers. Most don’t seem to understand the phenomenon and most don’t seem to read blogs, considering them the digital version of The Weekly World News. It is likely, then, that O’Rourke’s reporting was done in ignorance of the widespread speculation that these memos were a political dirty trick designed to hurt Republicans, rather than a willful neglect to mention it.

I’ll leave it to readers to decide which is worse.

Ham is publisher of Carolina Journal.