Reports of This Death Are Premature

According to peripatetic pundit Howard Fineman, the mainstream media is dying.

Why? Well, because of George W. Bush, for one. Because of the multiplication of non-mainstream news outlets, for another. And because of “its own fraying journalistic standards,” for a third. The idea of an objective media, Fineman believes, is “pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things.”

In the wake of the CBS fiasco, certainly it’s difficult to argue that media credibility hasn’t taken a hit. But Fineman’s nostalgia for “the notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream media” which he believes is “worth holding onto,” doesn’t seem quite right, either.

Fineman characterizes the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation of 30 years ago as a moment when, as he puts it, the media signaled to the rest of America that it was taking political sides.

Certainly, the Post’s efforts at the time alarmed and angered people who wanted Richard Nixon in office, crook or no crook. But if two reporters uncovering the truth about “a third-rate burglary” engineered and then covered up by the White House results in Americans becoming more jaded about the media, that’s just an outcome journalists need to accept. The media environment that Fineman is so nostalgic for can exist only if reporters shy away from looking under rocks in high places — and that’s not a worthwhile tradeoff.

Fineman also holds that the president’s apparent contempt for the fourth estate has marginalized the mainstream media. But in fact, one can make a persuasive case for exactly the opposite. Consider: The next time this president — or any president within the next 20 years or so — announces his or her intention to invade another country, will the media be as meek as it was in the run-up to the war in Iraq? If you really want to energize a press corps that had become intimidated and complacent, it makes sense to take the country to war on false pretenses — and mislead the public on matters from tax cuts to Social Security. Eventually, the press becomes cynical about government intentions and more suspicious of unaccountable power.

Of course, being driven by blind distrust is no better than succumbing to blind trust — as Mary Mapes and the CBS News team can attest. But a disciplined, skeptical media intent on fulfilling its fourth estate obligations is superior to one that looks the other way at malfeasance in order to be perceived as neutral. Fineman’s nostalgia for the time when Americans had unwavering faith in Walter Cronkite would be justified only if our politicians gave reporters more reason to have faith in them.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.