Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Chrenk versus Cronk 

No, it's not a sequel to "Alien versus Predator", which in turn is not an award-winning documentary about the 2004 presidential election.

Walter Cronkite, arguable the most famous American newsman of the past century, is punching the clock for the last time with his farewell newspaper column, in which he focuses on the state of the media today. Some of the things Cronkite has to say are pretty non-controversial:

"The decent newspapers try to be fair and present both sides of a disputed story in the community and our nation, and that is the essential of our history... It is where historians go to do their research. This is an absolutely vital link in the chain of culture that we call our democracy."
I can't think of too many people who wouldn't say "amen" to that. Call me a rabid right-winger, but when I ran a student newspaper some years ago, whenever a controversial issue came up I'd always make sure to publish stories reflecting the two main opposing points of view. Unlike my predecessors and successors, I might add, for whom a student newspaper had to be biased to the (far) left in order to counterbalance "Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media domination."

Yet getting both sides of the story across is so essential; not just as a service to current readers, to enable them to make up their own minds based on the alternative views provided, but also, as Cronkite notes, for the sake of the future generations. When I read history I'm often struck by how little written evidence goes to build our picture of the past (of course, the further back in time we move, the more of a problem this becomes). Not that this is ever likely to happen, but sometimes I do have nightmares that academics a millennium from today will write their history of the twentieth century based on an archive of "The Nation" discovered is some buried basement.

Some other of Cronkite's opinions are somewhat more debatable:

"The newsman said he values the Internet as a research tool, but he finds some stories published on the Web -- scandals especially -- play too fast and loose with the facts. 'I am dumbfounded that there hasn't been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future,' he said."
I'm not at all sure whether overall the Internet is more of scandal-monger and slandered than any of the traditional media (any comments, Matt Drudge?). Sure, the Internet makes it easy to publish just about anything, but the papers and radio and TV still enjoy and advantage of an overwhelmingly bigger audience.

But that's slowly changing, too, in part because contrary to Cronkite's ideal, the mainstream media has not been doing good enough job of presenting both sides of the story. Those who want to find out whether John Kerry has really been across the Cambodian border, or indeed find some good news from Iraq, have to resort to the Internet, since surely they won't find that information anywhere else. Until the mainstream media wakes up to its duty to report fairly and comprehensively all the talk about developing new slander laws is just a smokescreen and a distraction, not to mention a cynical, not-too-veiled threat by a monopolist against new entrants.

But I'm not going to hold my breath. Particularly when I keep reading things like
"An eager young Greek Olympic volunteer who is ordinarily a college student has been asking American journalists staying at the University of Athens media village for their opinions on President Bush.

His unscientific findings?

" 'Everybody says they don't like Bush, and they don't vote for him,' he said with a somewhat puzzled expression. 'So how did he get elected?' "
The people who use Internet must have obviously voted for him (hat tip: The Best of the Web).


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