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As Long as We Remember...

February 3, 2006

Internet Influence

Edward Lulie III

The Internet has permanently altered the political landscape. The “Drudge Report” is now a vital part of most journalists’ daily routine and has easily as much influence as any editorial from The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Where stories could once be ignored or buried by deliberate neglect, they are now circulated and expanded upon, often to the dismay of old media’s “progressive” pundits. The World Wide Web has seen a steady increase in traffic and the importance of on-line magazines or electronic newspapers has been revolutionary. “The Tentacle”, our own political arena, has been a growing part of this phenomenon.

Such electronic publications are the new weather vanes of politics, tipping off readers to the possibility of the winds of fortune changing direction. In news and political opinion, it isn’t enough to be solidly researched or well written for a story or column to be successful. It has to be timely.

That puts writers and columnists in the forecasting business. One has to judge the probable direction and outcome of events before they happen in order to have the time to get the column or story out. Deadlines and event cycles drive writers to work late hours and even then their work may be eclipsed by a new story or a twist of fate unforeseen back when the story was being written.

It’s safe to claim that Internet-driven stories now make up much of the news we get from major/old media news outlets. This can be devastating politically. The Michael Olesker resignation wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. The Internet made both the research and the expose possible.

Because The Tentacle allows writers like Kevin Dayhoff to have a place to publish, it was possible for his work of last December 21 to have an impact. That story revealed that Michael Olesker had used two paragraphs from a Washington Post article about Sen. Max Cleland, without attribution, in one of his own columns.

This spurred others to do further investigation and – in the end – Mr. Olesker resigned because other similar incidents were uncovered. You can bet that The (Baltimore) Sun was not interested in investigating one of its own. Otherwise how can you explain the fact that the “The Baltimore Sun” never found a problem in the many years that Mr. Olesker wrote for them? If “The Tentacle” had not existed, then it is unlikely Mr. Dayhoff’s work would have seen the light of day and Mr. Olesker would still be writing.

Then, too, there are legitimate mistakes and errors made by all writers. Yet today their work isn’t just reviewed by staff and editors but by legions of readers who exhaustively use the tools of the web for research and often catch writers in mistakes and errors.

Of course such errors in the old days were only “errors” if the facts ever were revealed to prove it. Too often the old media viewed such mistakes as minor and ignored them; it just didn’t like public admissions of fallibility. This is another way the Internet has altered the landscape.

Often the nature of what constitutes an “error” can come down to viewpoint rather than fact. Consider the issue of “who is George Bush?” Some see the truth about President Bush is that he is a bumbling incompetent. Others, often sharing the same political bias or “progressive” viewpoint, see him as a darkly evil political genius and mastermind behind the downfall of the Democratic Party.

They can not both be correct. It is a problem when we allow opinion to trump fact. Writers who ignore facts when writing risk revealing their own political bias in ways that can not be easily explained away. Ten years ago the claim that the media was biased was widely ignored; that claim is now widely accepted as true everywhere except inside major media.

In the last presidential election the major media widely ran stories along the lines that John Kerry was the intellectual superior of George Bush. Writers and editors did so based largely on their own political views rather than on any solid evidence, such as grades or test scores. They truly believe that to be a fact ignoring that George Bush was a qualified jet fighter pilot; something you do not see someone with a low IQ accomplishing.

His status as a pilot was mentioned prominently before the election when Dan Rather tried to claim George Bush had dodged military service. Mr. Rather’s evidence was discredited, but that didn’t stop him. Dan Rather believes the story to be true and still claims that it is. In his mind, that’s enough.

This was a moment when the case that network news is politically biased was demonstrated convincingly. The discrediting of Mr. Rather and his proof was also accomplished because of the Internet when dozens of people published their findings of inaccuracies and flaws in what were doctored documents.

Do you think in the old days that CBS would ever have admitted that by themselves? As it was they resisted the truth for weeks, Dan Rather still insists that his belief in the story is enough. Major media is, and continues to be, biased

Yet major media, kicking and screaming, is slowly changing. It is losing power. Consumers are voting their choices by not buying and not watching old media. The old media contempt and laughter over Fox News is now reduced to sputtering rage over Fox’s continuing success while they continue to lose market share and money.

There are some signs that the monolithic political viewpoint of old media (largely socialist) is altering as the bottom economic line – profits – dictates that reforms must be made. Old media has already lost a great deal of it’s influence but seems determined to keep ignoring reality and trust that the good old days of Dan Rather are just around the corner.

Reform is happening, but at a glacial pace due in part to the fact most major universities teaching journalism are uniformly well left of center on the political spectrum. And then there is hiring; what chance does a non-socialist have of getting a job when those doing the hiring share Dan Rather’s political viewpoint, as well as his certainty that their views don’t need proof; that belief alone is sufficient.

So the trend for web magazines to increase in importance will continue. The Tentacle will continue to gain readership and is an important sounding board for state and local politics (and, who knows, maybe national as well). I’m sure my fellow columnists will continue to have loud disagreements on many topics. You can read and decide for yourself anywhere and anytime that you have Internet access, for free.

As a postscript I want to send Roy Meachum my best wishes for a full and speedy recovery from his recent injuries. Roy and I rarely agree; but rare as that may be, it has in fact actually happened. The open and spirited debate in the arena of ideas requires that columnists are willing to argue and advocate a viewpoint. Without question Roy Meachum has vigorously engaged in the debate of ideas and he is a major and prolific contributor to “The Tentacle.” Hopefully his return will be quick so that we can get back to having more spirited disagreements. Get well soon, Roy!

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