Sunday, May 22, 2005

Objectivity and fairness are so five minutes ago

Kevin Drum is right about the Newsweek business and his conclusion – get off the mat and kick some butt, Newsweek and other cowed mainstream media! – has a visceral appeal.

But I’m still wondering, what realistically can Newsweek do right now? And what about the next time this happens? Because it will.

If you're operating on the old, pseudo-objective mainstream media model, you have to play by those rules. That means elaborate, public self-flagellation if you make a mistake and it mushrooms like this one did.

It doesn't matter if the mushrooming is unfair, exploited by enemies. You still have to stick to the “correction” script or your credibility – the whole basis for your relationship with your readers – will decline.

The Bush people know this makes Newsweek and other big media a soft target, easy to tie in knots over the tiniest misstep. After all, the current kerfuffle about anonymous sources is driven by their obsessive secrecy. They also know that every time this happens, it's another cut on the way to 1,000.

In the short run, the best thing for Newsweek is to get this over with fast and then get back on the story, which isn’t going away. The revelations of U.S. atrocities and official indifference keep on coming.

But in the long run, maybe it makes sense to just chuck the pseudo-objective model used by the newsweeklies, networks, and daily papers – the whole pretense of absolute fairness that nobody believes in anymore.

They don’t have to be cravenly partisan, just more explicit in articulating a point of view, like British newspapers. This would be a big change, and potentially not for the better – the ultimate victory of the Rupert Murdoch ethos. But it would make it much easier to be feisty and fight back when the politicos come after you with their shivs out.