To follow up on my last post about the woes of the New York Times, I want to take a closer look at what I think is happening there, particularly in terms of the huge negative reaction to their article implying an illicit affair on the part of John McCain.
I really do not want to get drawn into the political argument over what the Times did - although I do think they were wrong to go with such a thinly sourced story. Two excellent media critics and media educators, Jay Rosen (twice) and Jeff Jarvis, have written some very cogent thoughts on that topic. I'd rather focus on at least part of the why involved - and why it should have come as such a surprise to Times editor Bill Keller and other senior Times management that there would be such an enormous negative public reaction.
Leaving the politics out of it, you are left with the overwhelming impression that Bill Keller and the rest of the senior staff at the Times simply do not understand that the nature of the news and information flow has changed forever. (continued below)
Remember when Walter Cronkite used to be able to sign off the CBS Evening News with a knowing smile (or solemn frown) and say, "...and that's the Way It Is"? Not any more. There are millions of readers/viewers who will watch that and reply, "The hell you say. I'LL decide 'the way it is,' thank you. You just tell me the facts."
There are too many sources of news out there - some reliable, some less so - for the authoritarian, megaphonic tradition to work any longer. I believe most readers get their news now from a variety of sources, many of which are quite capable of, and willing to, fact-checking the "major" media. These sources aren't shy about publicizing any errors.
In the course of a day, I may - only may - read a Times news story. Then I can check the Wall Street Journal online, the Washington Post online, hundreds of other online newspapers. I may check Instapundit, to see if the story has gathered any comment or been deemed worthy of pointers to other commentators. I will probably check other sources as well - perhaps Mickey Kaus at Kausfiles, or Hugh Hewitt for a center-right perspective, or Daily Kos or Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo to see what the center-left and beyond have to say. A lot of sources, most with biases of which I'm already aware, and they tend to cancel out each other's biases.
What I do NOT do is rely solely on the Times story. And when I see them pushing a story that has a distinctly fish-like smell, I'm going to dig further - and I'm very likely to let the Times know something is wrong.
That's the part I don't believe the Times understands yet. Ten years ago, you couldn't really question the Times on its coverage. What would you do, write a letter to the editor? That's why trashcans were invented. Now, it's easy to challenge the Times, and to uncover other points of view. That's what the Times readership is doing - and obviously, on stories such as the McCain story, readers do not like what they see. When the media overreach, they are going to get called on it - witness the L. A. Times and Arnoldgate, CBS and Rathergate and now the New York Times and McCain.
The editors of the Times, and the editors and publishers of countless other publications or producers of news broadcasts, are going to have to come to grips with the new, two-way flow of information. I've said it many times before: the days of the bullhorn approach are gone. Journalists, like PR specialists and advertisers, must understand that they are no longer involved in a one-way form of public address. They are going to be involved in conversations, which are at least two-way. The news organizations that survive will be the ones that understand this.