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A Unified Theory of the Old Media Collapse

Asymmetrical tolerance and the collapse of Big Media credibility: How 2004 brought doom to legacy media.

7:30 PM, Dec 28, 2004 • By HUGH HEWITT
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IF OLD MEDIA--the "legacy media" of the big papers and old networks plus the newsweeklies--was a city and not simply a set of gasping institutions, it would look like Stalingrad circa 1944. Parts of most of the virtual buildings are still standing, but the devastation is pretty complete.

And the pummeling just keeps coming. On Sunday last, Power Line's John Hinderaker undressed the New York Times biggest big foot, Thomas Friedman, for all the blogosphere to see, The Belmont Club was scissoring the Associated Press's credibility, and I was pointing out the many defects in a Washington Post front-page story on an "Intelligent Design" controversy--in the process discovering that reporter Michael Powell, who came from a background of tenants' advocacy, had written extensively on tenants' issues without disclosing to the reader his past background.

And that was just three posts on a single day of the new world of accountability for the old media.

In my new book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World, I devote a chapter to how the old media went left into a deep ditch of agenda journalism, forfeiting the trust of a large portion of their audience and, in the process, opening the door to Rush Limbaugh, the second generation of radio talkers, Fox News, and, of course, the blogs.

But I didn't speculate on the "why" of that disastrous and uncoordinated choice made by the old media. Here's my first take on a theory. Call it the Theory of Asymmetrical Tolerance and its effects. It goes like this:

For many generations, Big Media represented the interests of the dominant political and business elites. Men like Henry Luce and William Paley represented that tradition.

Some of those interests were repugnant, especially those behind segregation. With the arrival of the civil rights movement, journalism slowly began to reform itself and to work overtime to represent underrepresented political and social points of view. There developed a great tolerance for viewpoints and perspectives from ideological minorities, and a great hunger to represent those views not only in the media product but also in the media workforces. First opposition to the Vietnam war and then the hunting of Richard Nixon accelerated this trend, so that old media quickly evolved into a fortress of "oppositional" reporting and personnel.

The new recruits to big journalism and their mentors did not work overtime to assure that, in the elevation of tolerance of ideological minorities, there would remain representation of majoritarian points of view. In fact, majoritarian points of view became suspect, and the focus of pervasive hostile reporting and analysis. Crusading journalists seemed to be an ideological pack. By the time the new millennium arrived, legacy media was populated at its elite levels by as homogeneous a group of reporters / producers / commentators as could ever have been assembled from the newsrooms of the old Hearst operation. Big Media had hired itself into a rut--a self-replicating echo chamber of left and further-left scribblers and talkers and self-reinforcing head nodders who were overwhelmingly anti-Republican, anti-Christian, anti-military, anti-wealth, anti-business, and even anti-middle class. These new journalists had no tolerance for majoritarian points of view, and the gap between the producers of the news and the consumers of the news widened until the credibility gap between the two made Lyndon Johnson's look modest by comparison.

MEANWHILE, the majority of consumers grew tired of the exclusion of its views from the media. When Rush Limbaugh arrived, he prospered because at last there was a voice reflecting majoritarian points of view. The same welcome greeted Fox News and the blogs of the center-right.

In legacy media there is now much dismay. Many of their biggest names appear not too understand that they are distrusted by more than half of America, and don't even seem to recognize their own contempt for majoritarian positions.

On Monday on my blog, I suggested that reporters and producers employed by Big Media should make available their biographies and résumés on the web for easy viewing by the public, as well as answers to ten brief questions, including: "For whom did the reporter vote for president in the past five elections? Do they attend church regularly and if so, in which denomination? Do they believe that the late-term abortion procedure known as partial-birth abortion should be legal? Do they believe same sex marriage ought to be legal? Did they support the invasion of Iraq? Do they support drilling in ANWR?" The outrage in response to my suggested disclosures from some bloggers was intense and immediate. One even suggested that posing such questions was incipient McCarthyism.

The old media, too, will likely recoil from the idea that their employees ought to disclose their past employment and education, their politics, and their policy positions. But why? My guess is that everyone reading already knows the answer: The uniformity of views within legacy media's legion of employees is nearly complete and very far left-of-center. And that is precisely why the old media has run aground so hard and so fast. Everyone knows it. The consumers of news now have choices. As a result, CNN's ratings over a decade are in a freefall. As are those of CBS. And the circulation of the Los Angeles Times is hardly graphing out better than either of those outfits.

The blogosphere is intensely partisan--just as old media has been. But, unlike the old media, there is truth in advertising on the Internet. This is a significant advantage going forward in the competition for credibility and trust. If old media does not develop tolerance for the majoritarian points of view in the United States, it will continue to decline in reach and authority.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.