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GlennReynolds.com

March 15, 2004 | 9:35 PM ET

CHANGING CHANNELS

The French Broads have a song with the chorus:

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Tom Brokaw, can't see it all
So I change the channel on my wall.

But it's not just Tom.  There's a lot of channel-changing going on, according to a new study by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism.  As Howard Kurtz observes:

Imagine a business that is steadily losing customers, shrinking its work force, cutting back on services and mistrusted by much of the public.
That is a snapshot of the news business in 2004. . . .
The business -- at least the Old Media part of it -- is shrinking.  Newspapers have 2,200 fewer employees than in 1990.  The number of network correspondents has dropped by a third since the 1980s, and the number of TV foreign bureaus is down by half. The number of full-time radio news employees dropped 44 percent between 1994 and 2001, the report says.

Young people, in particular, are tuning out.  Kurtz blames scandals -- like the one involving New York Times reporter Jayson Blair -- for the decline in the news business's position.  That's part of it, but beyond the big flashy scandals like the Jayson Blair affair or the revelation by CNN executive Eason Jordan that the network had covered up Saddam's atrocities in exchange for access, are the unrelenting smaller scandals; the general slant, untrustworthiness, and pettiness that happens in day to day coverage, and that people nowadays notice.

My previous post here provides a couple of examples:  CNN going out of its way to play up a minor anti-war protest, and a Gen-X NPR commentator (!) pointing out to self-centered baby boomers that Vietnam was a long time ago and that he's tired of hearing about it.  Then there's this case of the New York Times falsely accusing GI's of murdering innocent Iraqis, and not really correcting the error when it was pointed out.  (To his credit, however, the NYT public editor Daniel Okrent did set the record straight on that one, eventually).  And, of course, there's the experience most of us have had, of knowing something more about a story than we read or watch in the the Big Media accounts, only to realize that they're getting something important very wrong, or slanting things unforgiveably.

In tiny dribs and drabs, through lots of small errors, slants, distortions and descents into narcissism, the Old Media, at least, have squandered their credibility and their audience appeal until it's gotten to the point where the audience has noticed, and isn't accepting excuses any more.

That's a real problem.  Maybe it's just because this post was inspired by The French Broads, but it reminds me of cheap beer.  Back during the 1970s, a lot of big American beer makers -- Schlitz is the most famous example -- cut their quality to save money.  They did so in tiny steps, each imperceptible on its own, but the eventual result was that a lot of people suddenly woke up and said "this beer's no good anymore."  (What made things worse for them was that they were cutting quality just as consumers started caring more about it.)  Beer drinkers went off in search of other brews, and some of those brands disappeared from the shelves.

It seems to me that the news business has the same problem.  They've been cutting reporting budgets and foreign bureaus, relying more on news services and "filler" material, and tolerating a much higher degree of bias and general sloppiness in reporting, just as their audience has learned to tell the difference between good and bad journalism.  The result is that a lot of people think their beer's no good any more.

I remember when Schlitz tried to address this problem with a new Master Brewer and the slogan "taste my Schlitz."  It didn't work for them.  Now, a generation later, they're trying to make a comeback with a better product, and the hope that consumers have forgotten the watery and unsatisfying taste of the old one.  Will the news business have to wait as long?  And can it?

March 15, 2004 | 4:13 PM ET

ELECTION-YEAR MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS

When is a protest important?  When it's anti-war and anti-Bush.  How else to explain this CNN story, currently the top headline on their webpage:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than 60 people gathered Monday in Washington for a march to the White House, calling for an end to U.S. military action in Iraq.

Wow -- "more than 60 people!"  That's bigger than my high school Latin Club, though not by much.  Funny, but back when 4,000 people turned out to support the 81st Infantry Brigade on its way to Iraq, they didn't get that kind of attention.  You'd almost think there was media bias at work here.  And if you did think that, you'd be right.

I linked earlier to a story by Matthew Continetti that outlined the way in which news media ignored the connection between "9/11 families" objecting to Bush TV ads and antiwar groups, thus manufacturing a controversy and concealing its partisan roots.  Playing up tiny anti-war protests as if they meant something, just so as to provide a steady drip, drip of anti-war and anti-Bush material, is another example of press bias.

Of course, even CNN can't conceal the truth here -- "more than 60 people" is a pathetically tiny turnout, and illustrates that despite Baby Boomers' best efforts to reenact the Vietnam era, it's not happening.

How far is it from happening?  Even NPR commentators are pointing out that this war isn't Vietnam.  That's how far.

UPDATE:  Reader Darren Brewer emails:  "The CNN headline now says 'more than 100 people.'  Of course. that makes ALL the difference."

Yeah, they've changed the story now.  It's true that it doesn't make much difference, but I wonder where they found the extra people?

March 15, 2004 | 12:11 AM ET

KERRY'S TEMPER, CONTINUED

Howard Dean seemed to be on top of his game when he confronted Iowan Dale Ungerer during a town meeting, and told him to "sit down."  That moment, as Paul Boutin noted in Slate, seemed to mark the beginning of the end for him.

I don't think that John Kerry's confrontation with Pennsylvanian Cedric Brown will do the same, but it certainly sounds similar, and underscores issues of temperament that I've mentioned before.  The Philadelphia NBC station describes the scene:

The town meeting was contentious at times, with 52-year-old Cedric Brown repeatedly pressing the candidate to name the foreign leaders whom Kerry has said are backing his campaign.
"I'm not going to betray a private conversation with anybody," Kerry said. As the crowd of several hundred people began to mutter and boo, Kerry said, "That's none of your business."

If it's none of our business, why did Kerry bring it up in the first place?

The election is too far away, and the nomination too clearly in hand for Kerry, for this put-down to mark the beginning of the end.  But once again Kerry is displaying the peculiar blend of pandering and arrogance that seems to constitute his biggest character flaw.

The pandering part appeared in Florida, as the Miami Herald reports:

What will you do about Cuba?
As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Kerry was ready with the bravado appropriate for a challenger who knows that every answer carries magnified importance in the state that put President Bush into office by just 537 votes.
''I'm pretty tough on Castro, because I think he's running one of the last vestiges of a Stalinist secret police government in the world,'' Kerry told WPLG-ABC 10 reporter Michael Putney in an interview to be aired at 11:30 this morning.
Then, reaching back eight years to one of the more significant efforts to toughen sanctions on the communist island, Kerry volunteered: "And I voted for the Helms-Burton legislation to be tough on companies that deal with him.''
It seemed the correct answer in a year in which Democratic strategists think they can make a play for at least a portion of the important Cuban-American vote -- as they did in 1996 when more than three in 10 backed President Clinton's reelection after he signed the sanctions measure written by Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dan Burton.
There is only one problem: Kerry voted against it.

Ouch.  Kerry had voted for an earlier version, but I don't think that Florida voters will be impressed by the sophistry of voting for a bill, then voting to kill it, then claiming that you supported it.

This sort of thing is going to be a problem for Kerry in the general election.  The question is, will he be able to get over it before things heat up further?

MORE ON THE ADS
I wrote about the inflated response to Bush's TV ads earlier, but now it looks as if the entire thing was basically manufactured.  As Matthew Continetti reports, the "families" who communicated their outrage over the (brief) use of 9/11 references in Bush's ads seemed to be connected to an antiwar group called "Peaceful Tomorrows":

Sifting through the news coverage of the controversy over Bush's ads, one finds the same individuals--Schaitberger, Potorti, and Kelly--quoted again and again. Schaitberger and Kelly are both quoted in a Boston Globe story that ran on March 5. Schaitberger and Kelly Campbell, a spokeswoman for September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, were the sources for the Washington Post's account. Kelly, Potorti, and Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, are quoted in the AP dispatch on the Bush ads. Potorti is quoted in USA Today's story.
In fact, members of Peaceful Tomorrows are often quoted without any mention of their group affiliation. In what looks like an egregious case of lazy reporting, multiple news outlets treated members of Peaceful Tomorrows as if they were nonaffiliated people-on-the-street in order to make the controversy over the Bush ads seem widespread.

Read the whole thing.  As I've mentioned before, the press seems all too willing to give left-wing groups a pass on this sort of thing, and to overlook connections that make clear just how manufactured many stories are. 

And, of course, the whole notion that Bush shouldn't invoke his record after 9/11 represents a preemptive strike of its own:  an effort to take the most important issue -- and the weakest one for the Democrats -- off the table.

But Democrats haven't always felt that way, as this "Remember Pearl Harbor" poster for FDR illustrates.  Too bad the party seems to have lost that fighting spirit today.

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