Feral Beast? Try Lemming

Tony Blair’s temper tantrum

If the press were an animal, what kind of animal would it be? I’ve got my answer. I’m imagining a legion of lemmings, furry and well-intentioned, but ultimately condemned by their nature to follow each other mindlessly off a tall cliff, over the Paris Hilton peak or into the Invade Iraq crevasse.

The words “feral beast” certainly wouldn’t come to mind. It’s not particularly accurate or particularly evocative. But that is how – as we all know by now – the departing British prime minister, Tony Blair, sees journalists: as malicious tormentors who have tried to tear him limb from limb. Or, in his words, “The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.”

I usually have little problem dismissing the critique of anyone who paints the media with one, large brush stoke. Later in his speech, Blair lamented that in the news today, “Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual gray is almost entirely absent.” But he himself, however, isn’t allowing for much gray here. And it’s a color that should come quickly to mind when thinking about his own treatment by his country’s contentious media – after all, he rode into office and enjoyed his first few years with a press praising his every move, and only in recent years (since the start of a little war in Iraq) has his portrayal in the papers become increasingly negative.

So it would be easy enough to write off the prime minister’s words as those of a jilted lover, one who has seen the setting of his particular moment in the sun (or The Sun, as the case may be) and wants a parting shot – I never loved you anyway, he seems to be saying. But since he is the prime minister and all, an otherwise reasonable and intelligent man and in the public eye now for over a decade, it could be useful to look at the substance of his criticism, reductive though it may be, and see if he’s got any legitimate points to make.

The crux of his argument is that the Internet has thrown the rest of the media world off. The faster technology combined with the advent of a 24-hour news cycle has forced newspapers and television to compete for attention. In the process, traditional media have lost their dedication to accuracy and opted instead for what Blair calls, “impact.”

Here are the PM’s words: “The media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change, but its victims. The result is a media that, increasingly and to a dangerous degree, is driven by ‘impact.’ Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course, the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact.”

It’s hard to reconcile this with the “feral beast” comment – how can the media be both beast and victim at the same time? But I get what he’s trying to say. Pressure to compete has forced upon the media a viciousness that disregards the feelings of those – like the prime minister of a country, say – who might get caught in their crosshairs.

Blair seems to be fantasizing about a day when “impact,” or even competition, was not a factor in the news business. But this was never the case. Even when there were only two newspapers in London town, it was always important for editors not just to be right, but to be first, and, yes, to sell the most papers. So the idea that the Internet has fueled this detrimental competitiveness is just wrong. The only difference now, and what might be a more accurate description of what Blair finds so distasteful, is the quantity – there are just a lot more people publicly scrutinizing him than ever before.

Not surprisingly, the British press did not take kindly to Blair’s rant. The Guardian helpfully compiled the responses of the major papers and they all boil down to a variation of this zinger from The Financial Times: “The media has many faults. But responsibility for spin, cronyism, sofa government and the fatal misjudgment over Iraq lies with Mr. Blair and his government. Insisting he is misunderstood and only ever sought to ‘do the right thing’ willfully misunderstands that most criticism of him is about policy not morality, judgment not sincerity.”

The media have, indeed, many faults. But the notion that there is premeditated, malicious intent at work when a head of government finds himself getting bad press is off the mark. Which brings us back to the lemmings. The problem of news organizations these days is not an abundance of aggressiveness, but a certain timidity when it comes to stories that matter. Contrary to what Blair thinks, the press needs to be more ferocious, to turn away from stories that seem frivolous, to be its own feral beast and not care what anyone – the market or the prime minister—might say about it.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.