MSM Loses its Power to Swing Elections

One of the most notorious lines of the 2004 campaign season came to us
in Mid-July when Evan Thomas, the Assistant Managing Editor of
Newsweek, said: “Let’s talk a little media bias here. The media, I
think, wants Kerry to win. And I think they’re going to portray Kerry
and Edwards – I’m talking about the establishment media, not Fox –
but they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and
dynamic and optimistic and all. There’s going to be this glow about
them is going to be worth, collectively, the two of them,
that’s going to be worth maybe 15 points.

Thomas’s admission validated the charges made in Bernard Goldberg’s
book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the
News
, and capped waves of evidence from recent sociological
studies by the Pew Foundation, scientists at UCLA, and others that
have scrutinized the establishment that the bloggers call “MSM”
(Main-Stream Media). All the evidence shows that the MSM is extremely
left-wing compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Content analysis
has repeatedly demonstrated how this bias both distorts public
perception of specific issues and makes most Americans grossly
mis-estimate where the political center of popular opinion actually
is.

But the reaction to Thomas’s admission from Republicans and
conservatives was more weary than angry. They have been wrestling
with the reality of pro-Democrat and left-wing bias in the MSM since the
counterculture wars of the 1960s. Ironically, however, Thomas’s
public admission may have come just as the MSM’s power to reframe issues
and swing national elections was suffering a critical breakdown.

Part of what I’m talking about the Rathergate
forged-documents scandal, of course. It is not yet resolved as I
write, ten days after the original 60 Minutes II story
and a week after the evidence of crude fakery became undeniable to all
but the most blinkered Bush-haters. Dan Rather is still hanging
tough, and the editorial position of the New York Times
is still “Fake But Accurate”. But the longer the holdouts cling to
their forged evidence, the more damage they will take to their
reputations, with effects that will go beyond the current election
cycle.

Just the prompt effects of the scandal are interesting. The most
obvious one is that John Kerry now seems headed for a Dukakis-like
thrashing in the presidential elections. As I write, the
anti-Bush-leaning Electoral Vote
Predictor
website is projecting Bush at 331 electoral votes and
Kerry at 207. The site notes that this is the most lopsided spread
since it was launched.

There are many reasons besides Rathergate that Kerry is
losing so badly. He’s a pathetically weak candidate — a lousy
stump speaker with no program and a nearly nonexistent legislative
record, who ran on his Vietnam service only to have that prop knocked
out from under him by former crewmates and superiors who accuse him of
having been cowardly, opportunistic, and unfit for command. In fact,
Kerry has no discernable political base of his own at all; his entire
appeal comes from not being George W. Bush.

But Kerry’s weaknesses, glaring though they are, are not the
interesting part of the explanation. It’s the MSM’s inability to
cover them up and make them a non-story that is really
interesting. The attempt to present Kerry and Edwards as “dynamic”,
“optimistic” and “young” to which Evan Thomas admitted has mostly made
them look vacillating, frivolous and jejune instead. CBS, the New
York Times, the Boston Globe and the other centers of the MSM had also
been trying very hard to bury and discredit the Swift Vets;
nevertheless, Unfit For Command is now the #1 nonfiction
bestseller in the United States.

Nor were the MSM, despite a visible effort to do so, able to
suppress the evidence that Dan Rather’s anti-Bush memoranda had been
forged. In fact, as I write they are proving unable to defend even
the exculpatory fiction that Rather was an innocent dupe. The fact has
come out that CBS was told in advance that two of the six documents it
had were almost certainly bogus by its own examiners, and then witheld
the other four from expert scrutiny and ran with the story anyway.
The implications of that fact are being now dissected not just on
partisan right-wing websites but out where the general public can see
it.

There has been a lot of talk since the Rathergate
scandal broke that the rise of the blogosphere made all the difference
this time around. And sharp bloggers fact-checking the mainstream
media made all difference in Rathergate itself, there is no
doubt about that. But Rathergate is only part of a larger
picture that goes back through the Swift Vets at least to the Jayson
Blair scandal, and amidst the peals of blogger triumphalism I think
it’s time to pull back at this point and get a little perspective.

As an immediate reality check, the bloggers had very little to
do with the success of the Swift Vets’ book. It is indeed remarkable
that the Swift Vets were able to get their story past the big-media
gatekeepers, but nothing that the gentlemen at
InstaPundit or Power Line or Little
Green Footballs
uttered can have had much influence on that.

For a more comprehensive explanation, I think we need to look at
a couple of trends that are larger than the rise of the blogosphere
itself, and which actually drove that rise rather than being driven
by it. One of these is obvious: the plunging cost of communication.

Before the Internet and cheap long-distance phone calls, pulling
together a cooperative network large enough to produce and back
Unfit For Command, or to perform forensic analysis on the
Rather memos, would have been an extremely expensive and long-drawn-out
operation. The market for ideas had a much longer clearing time then.
In fact it is rather unlikely these sorts of organization would even
have been attempted more than a decade ago — everybody’s perception
of the time and money cost would have been prohibitive.

Other forces are in play as well. One is that people are less
willing than they used to be to derive their identities and a static
set of political affiliations from the things about themselves that
they can’t change. Your family’s politics is a far less important
predictor of your vote than it was a generation ago (which, among
other things, is why conservative talk of a “Roe effect”, of liberal
abortion supporters selecting themselves out of the population, sounds
so much like wishful thinking). Union membership stopped being
predictive sometime in Ronald Reagan’s second term. Even traditional
racial and ethnic interest blocs seem to be crumbling at the edges.

Increasingly, political power is flowing to consciously-formed
interest groups that arise to respond to individual issues and survive
(if they survive) as voluntary subcultures. The Swift Vets and
MoveOn.org are highly visible examples of the trend. Internet hackers
organizing against the DMCA and for open-source software is another.
Indeed, the blogosphere as we know it is a voluntary subculture formed
largely from the reaction to the trauma of 9/11.

To people in these subcultures, traditional party and ideological
labels are less and less interesting. Case in point: Glenn Reynolds
(aka InstaPundit), the pro-Iraq-war, pro-gay-marriage,
anti-gun-control, pro-drug-legalization king of the bloggers. Is he a
liberal Democrat with some conservative positions? A South Park
Republican? A pragmatic libertarian? Not only do Glenn’s own writings
make it difficult to tell, he seems to determined to flirt with all
these categories without committing to any of them. Other prominent
bloggers, including those who broke Rathergate, exhibit a
similar pattern. The MSM, looking through a left-wing prism, sees it
as conservatism — but most bloggers despise the Religious Right
and Buchananite paleoconservatism as heartily as they loathe Noam
Chomsky.

Finally, I think we need to look at what bloggers call the “cocoon
effect” and understand that it too is a special case of a larger
phenomenon. Even among bloggers who describe themselves as liberals
there is a widespread sense that the MSM has become a sort of cocoon
or echo chamber, in which left-liberal orthodoxy is shaped by a tiny
self-selected elite and never questioned because no alternatives are
ever permitted a serious hearing. Thus the MSM often experiences honest
shock, disorientation, and disbelief when it is forced into
contact with actual reality.

But it isn’t just bloggers who notice that cocoon. So do
blue-collar workers, firearms owners, rural residents, and indeed
anybody who lives in “red state” America. It wasn’t always like this;
before 1965 or so your average auto-worker in Birmingham and an
editorial-page writer in New York City might have disagreed on much,
but they lived in the same political universe and spoke the same
language. The Vietnam War ended that; during and after it, elites in
academia, show business, and the media embraced the preoccupations of
the New Left even as heartlanders were rejecting them.

The journalism schools went with them, and the MSM has been
drifting steadily further out of touch ever since. An index of the
drift is the the way that the degree of trust Americans have in
journalists has plummeted since 1970. Today, survey instruments find
Americans rate journalists lower in integrity and honesty then
used-car salesmen or lawyers.

It’s a commonplace among analysts of American politics that the
dispute over Vietnam has been at the bottom of our culture wars ever
since. So there is some sort of completion in the fact that the
disconnect between the MSM and the rest of America reached a critical
break while the MSM was attempting to boost on its shoulders John
Kerry — the man who cofounded Vietnam Veterans Against The War,
who met with North Vietnamese Communists while still a Naval officer,
and who described our involvement there as an extended war crime.

A long-serving governor of Louisiana once boasted that he could not
fail of reelection unless he was caught in bed with a live boy or a
dead girl. Thanks to Rathergate, George W. Bush has a lock
on the White House unless he’s at least as seriously embarrassed
during the next forty days. Kerry’s approval ratings are hovering
around 36%. It seems that the MSM cannot deliver Evan Thomas’s
15-point swing anymore — or, if it can, that the left-wing
Democrats’ base has dwindled to 20% of the population or less and the
Democratic National Committee, too long swaddled in the media cocoon,
is in far worse trouble than it understands.

Either way, the self-destruction of the MSM and the collapse of
John Kerry’s candidacy looks to me like no fluke. It is, rather, a
culmination of trends that have been building for three decades. The
trend in communications costs is not going to reverse. Therefore
media gatekeepers will continue to lose power, voluntary subcultures will
continue to gain influence, and the MSM’s ability to set agendas will
soon be one with the dust of history.

UPDATE: A reader wonders if the MSM ever had the power to swing elections. The Assistant Editor
of Newsweek thought it could deliver 15%. Popular-vote margins in Presidential elections have often
been 5% or less. What does that suggest?

19 thoughts on “MSM Loses its Power to Swing Elections

  1. It seems that the MSM cannot deliver Evan Thomas’s 15-point swing anymore — or, if it can, that the left-wing Democrats’ base has dwindled to 20% of the population or less

    I would guess that the latter is the case. I would also point out (although I doubt if you need the reminder) that “left-wing Democrat” is not a pleonasm.

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  3. Good piece. What’s interesting is that the decline in communication costs has not affected the ruling class in Europe nearly as much as it has here.

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  5. It is my belief that communications is what brought down the iron curtain. I see the blogs as a logical extension of the explosion of communications.
    Although I had heard of the blogs earlier. I only really discovered them as a result of John Kerry and Dan Rather. But I more than like what I see here. My own political positions leave me where it is difficult to identify me with a label.
    I have an example that I have been using recently. In a small town it is difficult for anyone to be a sucessful thief or to commit adultry. Everyone knows everyone else. Anything that an individual does or says is seen or heard by a member of the community who will communicate it to someone else, etc.
    As the world grew it became possible to do or say something in one place and something exactly different someplace else. You could do this with confidence that no one in location one would likely know or communicate with someone in location two.
    That condition no longer exists. What I have posted on one web site can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Whatever I have written anywhere, anytime is accessable to anyone anywhere.
    We are indeed in the “global village”. As my grandmother used to say, “be certain that your sins will find you out”

  6. interesting comments and observations. esp. re cost of comunication, and the evolutionary social impact of mass direct access to a growing communication medium. Allthought growing, web access is not universal, nor with it ever be: you still need discretionary time and some cash to set up a decent box with a highspeed connection, and the time available inside your life to learn how to make it all work.

    “These people” namely folks like you and me are typicaly far from radical. The ‘left’ or ‘right’ views that we hold are more than likely to be pretty close to the main stream no matter how far to one ‘side’ or not. Far more importantly, asside from left or right, our views are likely to differ from top-of-the-pyramid corporate perspectives only to the degree that our life experiences are from rungs other than those on the tip-top.

    Still, to a certain extent comunication power is decentralising. The impact that we are seeing likely to be only the tip of the iceberg – the network effect states that the value/strength/impact of a network ~= the square of participants. 10 years ago there was no blogosphere. Now look around.

    5 years ago, a then-pioneering citizen comunication effort was able to shift the coverage and framing of ‘MSM’ (or what i would call corporate media) in Seattle during the 1999 WTO milenium round of trade talks. Fast forward to today, and instead of people coming together with the specific intention of aggregating their efforts to create ONE info source to punch through corporate media’s information blockade, we are now wittnessing a Gulliver/liliputian show, where many web-capables are each bloging with their own axe to grind, in more of a swarm than an army. Perhaps blogswarm aggregating and info-army creation are some of what we can expect in the near future.

    The biggest deal about the small shift we are now beginning to see in theis present round of blog-flexing may be that we are witnessing the infoshift from the top group in our society (~ 1%) to the next group down society in terms of access to capital, resources, social power, the economic ~2%-9%. To this i say hurray. One step in the right direction.

  7. As you noted, perhaps the most frightening part of the MSM’s abuse of their power is the way they make real stories into non-stories.

    In reality, as bad as Rathergate is, it pales in comparison to the scandal of former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger stuffing his shorts, socks, and portfolio full of sensitive classified documents (very possibly for the benefit of the Kerry campaign, for whom he was working at the time.)

    The MSM have successfully “disappeared” this very real scandal – can you imagine the outcry if these transgressions had involved people even distantly releated to the Republican party? I can, and it makes Iran-Contra look like a cake walk. I’m not holding my breath on the Sandy Berger front, but if the blogosphere can lead the charge on investigating *that* story, then it will finally have proved its influence is both real and lasting…

    Media bias is now no longer deniable, in fact it is simply not denied at all. Now, flagrant attempts to fraudulently influence the outcome of a presidential election are brushed off with an imperial, “I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically.”

    The gloves are off, and CBS is finally unmasked as the partisan it has been for decades: How else can anyone explain the notoriously devious Ben Barnes, involved in the Kerry campaign up to his Sharpstown, declared to be an unbiased and reliable source for a CBS hatchet job on Bush – a story backed up by provably ludicrous forged documents apparently delivered through Democratic Party channels – in CBS-speak, an “unimpeachable source”.

    You might think a major network in bed with the Kerry campaign would be real news, especially in the presence of a quite substantial and reasonable suspicion of illegality. By all appearances, you’d be wrong…

  8. This would be a more convincing argument if you included evidence that MSM has swung elections in the past. Without that, your statements that the MSM can no longer do so do not prove your thesis that they have lost a power they once had.

  9. The political dynamic in the US seems a bit strange at the moment; we have conservatives and moderate libertarians contending within the Republican party (the conservatives having the upper hand), while the Democrats seem to be devolving into a small core of socialists in a sea of special-interest groups. (Yes, I over-simplify here, but that looks like the trend to me).

    Not really a healthy situation, and hopefully not a stable one.

  10. that prop knocked out from under him by former crewmates and superiors

    From what I’ve read, every single former crewmate of Kerry’s supports his claims, whether or not they support him personally. Those in the ads were not on the boat with him, so it is quite improper to call them “crewamates.” 1,2, 3.

  11. Nope. At least one of Kerry’s crewmen is appearing in Swift Boat ads even as we speak. I haven’t seen the ad, but I hear it’s devastating.

  12. “…it pales in comparison to the scandal of former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger stuffing his shorts, socks, and portfolio full of sensitive classified documents…”

    What’s actually scandalous about that is how it’s a lie that the Right have kept parroting even after it was proven to be a one.

  13. Prodigal:
    You prove the point about Berger. The socks-stuffing might have been not true. You then take that minor point, ignore the biggest point (that Berger deliberately, knowingly, and illegally removed relevant classified documents during an investigation of an attack on the United States). That is the scandal. Not that a fake story about his socks (because he obviously did stuff them into his clothing, since his briefcase was searched) is the point.

    There’s an importance to being able to concentrate on the main point, and not get sidetracked by the minor ones.

    In this case, See! BS! is trying to divert attention by doing exactly that. See! This nit here! It’s wrong!

    Problem is, the _main point_ is that _even if you take Rather at his word_, he knew there were problems. 60 Minutes talked to Killians family – who expressed doubts, and 60 Minutes didn’t report that. Same for the experts who panned what they saw. That means, 60 Minutes KNEW that at the very best, the memos could be challenged. From the get-go.

    Whether or not they KNEW that they were forgeries, whether or not they (potentially illegally) coordinated with the Kerry Campaign is static.

    The trust issue was breached when they KNEW there COULD be a problem, and they didn’t admit that. The rest is icing, so to speak, on the cake of bad intentions.

  14. re: ‘crewmates’. For the life of me, I cannot understand the Kerryites’ insistence on the distinction between those who were on the same boat as Kerry and those who were on on other boats in the unit. It’s not that I understand their point and disagree with it, I simply don’t understand it. What possible difference does it make that all but one of the Swiftees making the ads served on different boats?

    In the case of his fellow officers, they had to serve on different boats, by definition, because there was only one officer per boat, so if you insist that only those on his actual boat may comment then you are saying that no officer’s view on any other officer’s conduct is admissible. Clearly that is not the case – these officers worked together with Kerry, they lived with him, messed with him, bunked with him, attended briefings with him, and know far better than the enlisted men how he performed as an officer.

    As for the enlisted men on other boats in the unit, many of the same considerations apply. They were in the same unit, and had every opportunity to observe his conduct and performance, and their opinion is just as valuable as that of those on his boat. To claim that they didn’t serve with him because they weren’t on the same boat just makes no sense to me. One might as well say that the men on his boat also did not serve with him, because they never occupied the same space as he did, they never literally stood in his shoes, and they weren’t with him 24 hours a day. Which would be, of course, a nonsense argument.

  15. Whether you like him or not, Kerry won the debates and made mincemeat out of George W. Bush. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say Bush’s lead has evaporated, the president certainly doesn’t have the election “in the bag” anymore like he did at the time this post was made.

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