We’d Rather Not Have Fewer Sources

August 13, 2009 - 10:38 AM
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Did the following quote appear in The Onion, or a major American newspaper: “An intense period of corporate consolidation over the past 25 years, aided and abetted by deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission, has reduced to a mere handful the sources from which most Americans get their news”?
 
It may read like a parody, but those words were actually written by celebrated reporter Dan Rather on the op-ed page of the Aug. 9 Washington Post.
 
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, as the saying goes, but not his own facts. And the fact is that Americans enjoy more sources of information today than ever—and we’ll enjoy even more in the weeks, months and years ahead.
 
Consider YouTube, the non-partisan source of unfiltered information. It makes videos of almost everything available to almost everybody, creating idiotic Internet sensations such as the “don’t taze me, bro” guy. But it’s also a powerful political force.
 
Just ask former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, whose re-election campaign (and, indeed, entire political career) unraveled when he was taped referring to a supporter of his opponent as “macaca.” Allen joked, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia!” But he could have said, welcome to the future, when every slip-up will be available on the Web within minutes.
 
It’s also worth pointing out that the mainstream media had little interest in the town hall meetings our elected representatives were holding this month until videos of energized protesters started popping up on YouTube. Now, such meetings are being covered live by CNN. That’s real progress.
 
Dan Rather clearly pines for the world of 1974, when he was a White House correspondent and Americans really did have to get their news from a “handful” of sources. Back then there were only three networks, and they faithfully followed the lead of The New York Times when deciding which stories to cover and which to ignore. That made folks like Rather rich and powerful. But it didn’t help anyone who wanted unbiased news.
 
Today’s readers have thousands of sources to turn to, from talk radio to the Web to live coverage on three full-time news networks. We can watch President Obama stumble through a town hall meeting as it happens, instead of waiting for a friendly newspaper write-up the next day.
 
The old cowboy reporter also misleads when he writes that a desire for corporate profits, “has meant a reduction in newsgathering personnel, the shuttering of overseas bureaus and the near complete subordination of a public trust to the profit motive.”
 
Well. Know who profited handsomely from journalism? Gunga Dan Rather. His final contract with CBS (signed in 2001) paid him $6 million per year. Nothing wrong with making money; that’s what drives capitalism. But the truth is that there are at least a thousand people who could have sat in the anchor chair and read the CBS Evening News for far less than $6 million.
 
Suppose Dan had been dedicated to journalism. He might have taken a salary of $500,000 (still putting him in the top 1 percent of all wage earners) and had CBS spend the other $5.5 million on reporters, producers and videographers. Assuming each would work for $50,000, that’s an additional 110 people who could have been deployed in the field every day, doing the sort of journalism Dan Rather purports to celebrate.
 
Rather claims journalists have “little incentive to report without fear or favoritism on the same government one is trying to lobby.” Yet his solution to the supposed problem would be a presidential commission to make recommendations on “improving and stabilizing” the news business.
 
So a federal panel is going to tell journalists how to investigate the federal government? Seems like an odd approach.
 
The truth is simple: As long as Barack Obama is in office, mainstream reporters will tread gently, because they generally like him and support his agenda. That’s why the story of the fired Americorps Inspector General hasn’t gotten much play.

Yet when it comes to Obama’s predecessor, there are no such kid gloves. That’s why we’ll still see front-page stories about the 2006 firing of some U.S. Attorneys (who always serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired any time for any reason).
 
Dan Rather’s eager to drag everyone back to the Stone Age, when he was able to control the flow of information. News flash: There’s no going back.