The Journalist as Herd Creature

In September 2004, well before the elections, I wrote an essay on
the collapse of
mainstream media influence
. I predicted that the Rathergate
scandal and the Swift Boat Vets would lock up the election for George
W. Bush, despite the MSM’s most determined efforts to get Kerry into
the White House. I related this to a long-term decline in MSM influence as
plunging communications costs erode its gatekeeper role, and predicted
that decline would continue.

(For anyone who came in late, “MSM” is how bloggers abbreviate the
“mainstream media”. But that term is imprecise, because the category
actually excludes the contrarian/conservative but mainstream Fox News
and includes certain niche media outlets such as National Public
Radio. What MSM really refers to is what I have sometimes called the
“dominant media culture”. The centers of this culture are the New
York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, ABC,
CBS, NBC, and CNN. The MSM peddles news made by and for elite
bicoastal liberals. One conservative commentator has aptly described
the MSM as an “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”, which indictment could be
dismissed as political ax-grinding if sociological studies by the Pew
Foundation and others had not consistently shown journalists and
editors to have exactly the voting and political-contribution patterns
that description would suggest.)

Two months later, my predictions appear to have been correct, and
have been repeatedly echoed in postmortems by Democratic political
analysts. The wailing and gnashing of teeth in the MSM has been loud.
The latest eruption is from Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis
Star-Tribune, in which he frenziedly
the editors of one of the blogs that helped break the
Rathergate scandal. Coleman has been quite properly slapped around
for his frothy, hysterical. ad-hominem rhetoric by both his
and many other bloggers (here
is one representative shellacking).

Coleman’s anger so possesses him that he stoops to casting
aspersions on an opponent’s genital adequacy. But spare him some pity
along with your condemnation, because his rage transparently
springs from fear — the fear that he’s being beaten at his own
game of opinion-molding by amateurs, by bloggers, by (worst of all)

What Coleman is acting out on an individual level is the same rage
and fear that is rippling through the entire MSM. This rage and
fear has three causes, intertwined but distinct and all readily
discernable in Coleman’s rant.

First, the MSM is reacting badly to its loss of power. Few people
would claim now what Newsweek editor Evan Thomas did less
than six months ago, that the MSM can swing a national election by 15
points in the direction it wants — not when the 2004 elections
swung by at least three points in the direction it didn’t

Second, the MSM is acting from a genuine fear of the social
consequences of the loss of its power. Many of its influence leaders
genuinely believe that conservatives are evil thugs bent on plunging
the world into a theocratic, imperialist dark age, and that it
is their job to fight the good fight against this.

Third, they are most terrified of all at discovering how out of
touch they are. In the past, your typical MSMer surrounded by other
MSMers has believed that he is mildly “progressive”, merely holding
the opinions that all reasonable people hold and opposed by at most a
tiny and dismissable fringe of kooks and rednecks. MSMers are more
undone than anything else by the discovery that the mainstream of the
American population is rejecting them in droves for Fox News, talk
radio, and the blogs.

The first two causes induce fear, but I think it’s the third one
that tips it over into irrational panic. Almost all the working
journalists I’ve ever met (and I’ve met boatloads of them) are herd
creatures — they may talk about individualism and subverting the
dominant paradigm, but they have a very strong need to believe that
they’re “of the people”, simply writing the things that 99% of the
people would think and write if they were capable.

It’s a short step from this belief to Coleman’s flavor of
quasi-paranoid ranting. Anybody who doesn’t think like the MSM cannot
be authentic, but must instead be a paid or suborned tool of evil
forces. Watch for this theme to show up more and more frequently in
the next year as most of the MSM sinks ever-deeper into denial.


  1. The #1 reason the MSM has been trying to smear the blogs is *MONEY* There have been a # of articles the last year on the growing revenue going from the MSM to blogs. It is a matter of survival for the MSM without big ad revenue they cant pay their stars multi million dollar yearly contracts and the VPs will see their perks cot or eliminated. Last month Bus Week ran the latest article on the $ going from MSM to blogs; but there have been several on the net if not on print. The MSM are fighting for their lives and they know it quite well- check out the rants from Viacom VPs the last few months. The Trib is just repeating what Viacom has been saying since Oct. BTW they should be scared Rathergate proved what people able and willing to think for themselves have known for 45 years.

  2. Like every other established institution(like the record industry and Microsoft), instead of fixing their own problems, MSM is simply attacking the oppositions by calling the kettle black Fox New biased and lashing out at bloggers as a bunch of amature who don’t know what they’re taking about.

  3. Rod Stanton has a point. Let me refer you to this op-ed (registration required) by a columnist decrying the declining readership of newspapers. He doesn’t blame blogs, but he blames everything else – except the content of the papers. It would seem that Nick Coleman understand that the blogs have something to do with the problems the dead-tree media is seeing, and it absolutely scares him.

    I’m actually surprised that Coleman’s editors let him melt down like that in public.

  4. Few people would claim now what Newsweek editor Evan Thomas did less than six months ago, that the MSM can swing a national election by 15 points in the direction it wants — not when the 2004 elections swung by at least three points in the direction it didn’t want.”

    Not necessarily. The MSM could very well have swung the national election by 15 points in their direction. I expect they did. If they had reported evenly, I think Kerry would have been 15 points farther behind with even reporting.

    What would Kerry have done, had he been president on 9/11? It’s a pretty bad situation, not of Bush’s making. It only takes one to start a war.


  5. Given how hard they wored at it, I’m pretty sure that the MSM must have swung some of the vote to Kerry, but I have no confidence in any particular percentage after visiting my family in Florida from March to September(I’m an American living in Australia) and talking to a lot of different folks. Some are completely taken in by it and others see right through it so well I’m humbled as a former university level teacher of media and its ability to crete illusions. I got the distinct impression that the MSM are so overdoing it that they are really alienating middle of the road voters. Like the current MSM Bush bashing over when he spoke about the Tsunami and how much gummint money he pledged initially. As Woody Guthrie sang during the great depression: “If this here soup gets any thinner some of these here politicians might be able to read through it too.” Well, I think the people are seeing through it and the rate of return on pure propaganda, like the current Tsunami beat up, will keep falling. I agree with Eric that the election results put paid to MSM media types arrogantly bragging about percentages like 15%.

  6. You “predicted that the Rathergate scandal and the Swift Boat Vets would lock up the election for George W. Bush.” Well Bush certainly won the election, but can you cite some hard numbers that say, definitively, that those two issues were the biggest reasons for Bush’s re-election?

    For example, I could say that the biggest reasons for his re-election were some combination of his incumbency, the fact that we were at war, and the public’s opinion that Bush was the best man for leading the country in the war on terrorism. But that would just be an educated guess on my part.

    I could also say the biggest reasons for his re-election were the success of his negative campaigning over issues like gay marriage. But that would only serve my own spin, and also be an educated guess.

    So, please, cite some research that supports your assumption. Otherwise, the remainder of your argument is useless.

  7. Bill Trippe, your “educated guess” is wrong. Bush’s margin was actually lower
    in states with anti-gay-marriage ballot items than elsewhere. By attributing
    his victory to that issue, you delight Republicans – who will be only too happy
    to watch Democrats chasing a mirage while they continue to peel interest groups away from the Democratic base.

    As for the rest: go read up on what Joe Trippi, James Carville and their ilk
    (Democratic campaign strategists) have been saying ever since the election about the effects of Kerry’s failure to confront the Swift Boat Vets allegations. Since I don’t share your interest in re-electing Democrats, it is not my job to do your homework for you.

  8. Hi Eric,

    I clearly stated that what I was saying was an educated guess. I have no hard numbers to back me up.

    Which is precisely my point to you. Your assumption about what won the election is just that–an assumption, not backed up by any hard facts. You then only add another logically fallacious argument, with your appeal to authority (and to Trippi and Carville no less). So, in other words,you backup one illogical argument with another illogical argument.

    If you still don’t understand my point, please re-read my original comment. I would like proof of your point. For example, you could cite a poll or two.

    If the quality of debate here is representative of the rightwing blogosphere(and actually, it is a little better than some), I am not holding my breath waiting for arguments such as these to become the recommended medium of political discussion.



  9. Heh. Anybody who thinks I belong in a box labeled “rightwing” is probably not
    persuadable by evidence. I’m no fonder of Republicans than I am of Democrats.

  10. Hi again Eric,

    Ok, so you are not rightwing. If you would like, I will even address you as your higness.

    Now, can you answer my very simple query as to whether you have any proof for your initial argument, or should I move on?


  11. For a refutation of the “gay marriage won it for Bush” myth based on actual poll numbers, start here.
    For typical comments on the impact of the Swift Boat Vets by ex-kerry staffers, start here.
    Here is a mid-campaign story on the ad impact, with poll numbers suggesting Kerry was hurt among independents..

  12. Hi Eric,

    The National Review link was broken, and I am not sure what you meant by “start here” on the gay marriage question; did you mean to include a link?



  13. Wow. Eric S. Raymond. I’ve read the bat book, well, the parts I needed.

    How can you believe that the MSM was gunning for Kerry?

    …even though 11 of 18 people who were actually there claim the events for Kerry’s medal were as the record states
    …and although every record was entirely consistent on this point
    …and only ONE member of Swift Boat Veteran’s for Truth (Larry Thurlow) was there that day
    …and the MSM had new coverage of SBVT accusations or ads _every_single_day_ of the final months of the election

    The MSM was really working for Kerry?

    Now, you have to excuse my language in the link above.

    You obviously have a lot of interest in Joe Satriani. Please show the political system an equal amount of interest.

    Did you ever watch SBVT O’Neill debate Kerry back in June, 1971? They re-aired the whole thing on C-SPAN. O’Neill simply repeated Johnson/Nixon propaganda, and Kerry told the truth. O’Neill never got any better.

    Watch C-SPAN for, say, given your intelligence level, two years. Research _every_ loony tidbit you hear about.

    Every paper in America ran with Bush’s obviously fraudulent WMD claims. Not one seems to be holding him accountable today. No American paper has dared THANK the UN for disarming Iraq, and, later, when the help of Gen. Kamel, removing even the weapons related program activities. The Deulfer report shows that not ONE SINGLE IRAQI claims Saddam planned to restart weapons programs after sanctions ended.

  14. I think you’re missing half the boat. Anyone who pays attention to the far-left will tell you that leftists hate the MSM too, essentially for the same reason as right-wingers. Both sides complain of lousy research and a poor grasp of the fundamentals of whatever subject they are reporting upon.

    The MSM is doomed, not by talk-radio or bloggers, but by their own unwillingness to do basic research (google search anyone?) regardless of the political issues involved.


  15. Considering

    …the non-stop airing-of-greivances by SBVT,
    …the complete lack of “Bush can’t even tell the truth when asked the time,” reporting
    …and how not one major media outlet ran a story on Bush’s “White’s Only” pasts,
    …and _the_fact_ that, after the Rather “scandal,” the White House released a memo with the exact same typesetting as the alleged forgeries

    I think the MSM is always servile to the groups in power. During the Johnson years, when the Dems had veto-proof majorities in both Houses of Congress, it is no wonder that Reed Irvine and the Right-Loonies made so much of the “liberal bias.”

    Roston is right. The amount of research is pitiable.

    I knew the WMD weren’t there. Anyone who had any knowledge of the alleged stockpiles knew that they would have all been worthless sludge years before the war started. The “unaccounted for” stockpiles were constantly trotted out.

    And the Mainly Stupid Media simply echoed the administration.

  16. Josh Narins wrote: “Every paper in America ran with Bush’s obviously fraudulent WMD claims.”

    How come you don’t rail against the MSM for running with the “obviously fraudulent WMD claims” made by Clinton, Albright, Ted Kennedy, et. al. that said essentially the same thing Bush said? I don’t really need to provide date/time stamps and quotes do I? The bottom line is that either the claims were fraudulent AND both sides were keeping quiet, or alternatively, the intelligence business is an imperfect world combined with “Hussein was trying to fake everyone out that he had chemical weapons in order to deter us” is what actually happened.

    Josh, based on your comments here on multiple posts plus your moonbat blog plus your ridiculous comments on my blog plus your censorship of my comments (which you then falsely attack) you are not living in a world that deals with reality in any significant fashion. I’m sure you won’t like the direct and derogatory comments to you but I don’t like being told that I’m a liar without any appropriate reason to do so. This is classic extremist behavior, when you don’t agree with someone you find ways to ridicule and belittle what they have to say.

  17. The mainstream media is much emptier of bias than Fox News. No, really. Check Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them” and “The Truth (With Jokes)”. He gives great proof that (a) Fox is heavily biased right, and (b) every other media outlet he checked is unbiased (except for the obvious “good story” bias and the bits that have every right to be biased), or at least not biased left.

    1. >The mainstream media is much emptier of bias than Fox News.

      In considering the following, note that I never watch Fox News myself and am not a conservative.

      According to psephological studies by the Pew Foundation and others, Fox news sits very close to the center of the American political spectrum, with most of the rest of the media crowding the far left end. That’s what you find if you poll a sufficiently broad sample of Americans under conditions designed to minimize preference falsification.

      I leave it to you to reconcile that empirical observation with the notion that Fox is “biased right”. I’m sure it looks that way to Al Franken, but to anyone sitting at the actual median of U.S. politics Franken looks like a left-wing loonytoon.

      I don’t claim to occupy that median myself; I’m a libertarian to whom pretty much the entire conventional political spectrum looks like repulsive statist thugs.

  18. @EMF Not sure that I really want to bite on this one, but a substantial, perhaps the most important, part of media bias consists of selecting what’s covered; I noticed with cynical fascination the media’s pushing the 2012 Republican presidential nomination toward Mitt Romney by conveniently making old scandal “news” and by ignoring Ron Paul even when he was a strong second place. See also the national play that a single gun homicide gets vs. the local-only treatment of defensive gun use, even in newsworthy situations, and the focus on “human-interest” stories of the localized harmful impact of policies and programs that are beneficial to society at large.

  19. @EMF
    “The mainstream media is much emptier of bias than Fox News.”
    “Fox news sits very close to the center of the American political spectrum,”

    The items in Fox news I have seen in the past covering the Netherlands (or Europe) were “not even wrong”, they were pure fiction. That does not bode well for the coverage of other subjects.

    I would advice those criticizing Fox, or any other news outlet, for their political bias that they should not focus on the political bias of the outlet, but on the lack of reality in the coverage.

    But maybe this is a fundamental point: Whenever I see a discussion involving people from the USA, they seem to be obsessed with the political biases of the messengers. Meanwhile, these people ignore the question whether there is a link between the message and reality.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *