St. Elizabeth, Mythmaker

A mostly political Weblog.
Sept. 19 2008 6:15 PM

St. Elizabeth, Mythmaker

It's your fault for wanting to know the truth.

(Continued from Page 19)

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Model 3 is Born? Howie Kurtz notes the essential weirdness  of McCain strategist Steve Schmidt's fury at the press: Normally, campaigns say they are angry at reporters who print stories without asking them for their side of the story.  "A simple phone call would have told X the truth." etc. The McCain camp's complaints against Elisabeth Bumiller fall into this traditional mold.

But Schmidt is now angry because reporters are making the simple phone calls to ask about Sarah Palin before they've actually run with anything. It's the questions he doesn't like!  Kurtz: "Schmidt did not contend that [his questioners] were publishing or broadcasting false information about Palin and her family."

What we're witnessing, I think, is the death of a media paradigm that we lived with comfortably for, oh, the last year or two. And John Edwards is to blame! Here's the relevant typology:

Model One: There's the press, and the public. The press only prints "facts" that are checked and verified. That's all the public ever finds out about. The press functions as "gatekeeper."

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Model Two: Model One broke down with the rise of blogs, which (along with tabloids and cable) often discuss rumors that are not "verified." The public finds out about these rumors, as rumors. And it turns out that blogging obsessively about rumors is a pretty good way to smoke out the truth (see, e.g., Dan Rather). 

But in Model Two, the rumors still don't get reported in the "mainstream media"--the respectable print press, the non-cable networks--until they are properly confirmed. Blogs and tabloids are a sort of intermediate nethersphere between public and the elite MSM that serves as a proving ground where the truth or falseness of the "undernews" gets hashed out. Stories that are true then graduate to the MSM.

Model Three: I thought Model Two would be a workable model for years, until either the MSM itself went totally online or until almost all voters stopped paying attention to it. I was wrong! The Edwards scandal did Model Two in. For months, the MSM failed to report the increasingly plausible rumors of John Edwards' extramarital affair even as it became the widespread topic of conversation in blogs, in the National Enquirer, and among political types. The disconnect turned out to be painfully embarrassing for the MSM, especially when the rumors were finally "verified" with Edwards' confession. A lot of what we are seeing now is the MSM not wanting to go through another Edwards experience.

Why can't the MSM bear to fulfill its Model Two role? a) No press person likes to not be the center of attention. You want to talk about what people want to talk about. That's how you make money, for one thing. And maintaining a disciplined silence on a rampant undernews rumor--even an unverified one--made too many reporters feel as if they worked for Pravda; b) Suppressing an undernews scandal about a Democrat subjected the MSM to charges of pro-liberal political bias (to which respectable organizations are particularly sensitive, because they are largely true); and c) even much of the left was disgusted by the MSM's behavior regarding the Edwards rumor.

We are now, I think, making the next logical leap, to a model in which unverified rumors about public figures are discussed and assessed not just in the blogosphere or the unrespectable tabs but in the MSM itself. I say welcome! With NYT reporters and bloggers all openly discussing unverified reports,, whatever is true will become un-unverified that muhch faster. And the public is proving, by and large, to be quite capable of distinguishing between stories that are true and rumors that are still being investigated.

We're not quite there yet--the unverified rumors that Palin had faked her pregnancy were printed in the MSM, but the McCain campaign itself gave the MSM implicit permission  by saying it was releasing the news of Gov. Palin's daughters real pregnancy in order to scotch the fake pregnancy speculations of bloggers. And Schmidt's tormenters were still only checking out rumors, not printing them. But the avalanche of questions to which Schmidt is being subjected--and his discomfort--suggests that the MSM is in the process of shifting to a new role, in which it aggressively investigates and discusses rumors rather than waiting for the industrious blogosphere to force its hand.

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