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The End of News?

In mid-October, I tuned in to Limbaugh’s show, aired in New York on WABC, and heard him spend much of his three hours defending the White House against press criticism that the President’s aides had scripted a videoconference between Bush and a group of soldiers in Iraq. Attempting to turn the tables and make the press the issue, Limbaugh cited several cases in which he claimed news organizations have helped to stage events, such as when a reporter from the Chattanooga Times Free Press helped shape the question a GI asked Donald Rumsfeld in Iraq about the lack of adequate armor for US military vehicles. This was a typical ploy by Limbaugh, who seeks at every opportunity to hail the progress being made in Iraq and to blame negative news on Bush-hating reporters.

Limbaugh’s three hours on WABC were followed by three by Sean Hannity, who denounced the media for its distorted coverage of Iraq and its “nonstop attack on the President” from the very start of the war. Then came two hours by Mark Levin, a lawyer turned talk show host who specializes in right-wing name-calling (he called Joseph Wilson and his wife “finks,” Judy Miller “a rat,” Ted Kennedy “a lifelong drunk,” The New York Times the “New York Slimes,” and Senator Charles Schumer “Chucky Schmucky”). Then came two hours by Laura Ingraham, who, also taking up the Bush staging charges, denounced the “elitist” press for scripting “everything” and being “out of touch with the American people.” Such tirades are issued daily on hundreds of stations around the country.

An even bigger boon to the right, in Brian Anderson’s view, has been the rise of cable news, especially Fox News. Founded in 1996, Fox first surpassed CNN in the ratings in early 2002 and now consistently outdraws it. It is available to more than 85 million subscribers, and, on average, it attracts more than eight million people daily—more than double the number who watch CNN. As with talk radio, Fox relentlessly hammers away at the press, casting it as fundamentally opposed to the values of ordinary Americans—particularly in such matters as abortion, faith, and fighting terrorism. Last spring, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller estimated that last year Fox’s Bill O’Reilly had attacked his paper no fewer than sixty times.

Last May, during the controversy over Newsweek‘s report that a copy of the Koran had been flushed down a toilet at Guantánamo, Hannity & Colmes presented a report from Ramadi, Iraq, where Oliver North, now a Fox correspondent, was talking with Specialist Jonah Bishop of the US Army’s Second Infantry Division. North said that he’d just returned to al-Anbar Province after many previous visits:

Oliver North: It’s things like this false story that came out about what happened at Guantánamo that creates divisions between the Americans out here and our Iraqi allies. It would strike me that what we’re going to see, as a consequence of that, is an increase in the No. 1 unit of attack that they use against us, which is what?

Specialist Bishop: “IEDs.”

North: “That’s improvised explosive devices?”

Bishop: “That’s correct.”

In other words, North was asserting that the brief item in Newsweek would cause more roadside bomb attacks on US forces, and, by implication, more deaths of US servicemen. For weeks, Fox regularly repeated its charge against Newsweek‘s Koran report, neglecting to make any mention of the well-substantiated reports about the mishandling of the Koran at Guantánamo that were appearing in The New York Times and other papers. Fox was thus able to keep the issue alive in a way that the Bush administration by itself could not have done.

The “Fox effect,” as it’s called, is apparent at MSNBC, where Joe Scarborough nightly sounds like Bill O’Reilly, and at CNN. In recent years, as its ratings have declined, CNN has devoted more and more of its broadcast day to entertainment, commentary, and soft news. Here one can find a lineup of cautious and vacuous daytime anchors, the predictable attacks on outsourcing and Mexican immigration by Lou Dobbs, and the superficial celebrity interviews of Paula Zahn and Larry King. CNN’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, including sharp reports on FEMA’s shameful neglect of New Orleans’s poor residents, shows that the network can still provide exceptional coverage in times of crisis, and in the weeks since CNN seems to be returning to a more serious approach to the news.

The Fox effect has been apparent, too, at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose sixty-plus stations give it access to a quarter of the US TV audience. Since late 2002, Brian Anderson observes, Sinclair has fed its affiliates a seventeen-minute news report that uses Fox’s slogan about being “fair and balanced.” The report includes an opinion feature called “Truth, Lies and Red Tape” that claims to present stories that the established networks “don’t want viewers to hear,” as a Sinclair executive put it. (One segment derided the United Nations for “spending more time and money defining the War on Terror instead of fighting it.”)

In April 2004, Sinclair directed its eight ABC affiliates not to run a Nightline segment in which Ted Koppel read the names of the more than one thousand US servicemen who had by then died in Iraq. In the ensuing controversy many conservative commentators defended Sinclair’s decision, and the discussion on talk radio, cable news, and the Internet helped foster the idea that the mere discussion of US combat deaths in Iraq is somehow unpatriotic. The Sinclair debate complemented the various steps the administration has taken to suppress coverage of US casualties. Only in the last few months, as insurgent violence has intensified and the number of American and Iraqi deaths has mounted, has the coverage of the war grown more skeptical on some TV news broadcasts. (On the same day that Scooter Libby’s indictment was announced, CNN chose to rebroadcast an hour-long report, “Dead Wrong,” on the Bush administration’s false claims about WMD.)

2.

But it is a third, technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging: blogs. These Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up. They first began to appear in the late 1990s, and there are currently more than 20 million of them. As one critic has observed, many are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line. Those with any substantial readership and political influence probably number in the hundreds, and most of these are conservative. As Brian Anderson writes with considerable understatement, “the blogosphere currently leans right.”

At The Truth Laid Bear, a Web site that ranks political blogs according to their number of links with other sites, eight of the top ten blogs are conservative. The conservative sites include InstaPundit (University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds), Power Line (three lawyers), michellemalkin.com (a syndicated columnist whose recent book defends the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II), Free Republic (conservative activists), Captain’s Quarters (run by a call-center manager), the Volokh Conspiracy (mostly law professors), and Little Green Footballs (commentary on foreign policy with a strong pro-Israel slant). Complementing them are a host of “milblogs,” written by active-duty military personnel promoting vigorous pursuit of the GWOT (Global War on Terror). (By far the most-visited political blog is the left-of-center Daily Kos; its popularity is owing in part to its community-style approach, which allows registered readers to post their own comments as well as comment on the posts of others.)

In addition to being linked to one another, these blogs are regularly featured on more established right-of-center Web sites such as the Drudge Report (three billion visits a year), WorldNetDaily (which appeals to the Christian right), and Dow Jones’s OpinionJournal, which features James Taranto’s widely read “Best of the Web Today.” These sites, in turn, are regularly trolled by commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who then publicize many of their messages over TV, radio, and their own Web sites. NationalReviewOnline seeks out new conservative blogs and launches them with great fanfare. And the Bush administration actively supports these efforts. Last December, for instance, Lynne Cheney observed on the MSNBC program Hardball that she regularly reads Instapundit and Power Line—a powerful recruiting tool for those sites.

For these bloggers, the principal target is the mainstream media, or MSM. Every day, they scrutinize the top dailies, the three broadcast networks as well as CNN, and the newsweeklies for evidence of “liberal bias.” Over the last year, they have demonstrated their influence. When 60 Minutes ran its segment on the memos about George Bush’s National Guard service, Power Line led the way in raising doubts about the authenticity of the documents and the reliability of their source. After CBS apologized, the remaining serious questions about Bush’s National Guard service were abruptly dropped by CBS and the press in general.4

Last fall, when Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi sent her friends a group e-mail that bluntly described the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad, right-wing bloggers accused her of bias and demanded her recall. The Journal quickly announced that Fassihi would take a previously scheduled vacation and so remain out of Iraq until after the US presidential election. (She has since resumed reporting from Iraq.) Earlier this year, when CNN president Eason Jordan claimed at the Davos summit that the US military was deliberately targeting journalists critical of the war in Iraq, bloggers exploded in outrage. Within days, a computer software analyst in Medford, New Jersey, had set up a new Web site, Easongate.com, to stoke anger against Jordan on the Internet. From there, the controversy jumped to TV, and soon after Jordan resigned.

Liberal bloggers have had some successes of their own. Partly as a result of their commentaries, for instance, the press has paid more attention to the so-called Downing Street memo of July 2002, in which Tony Blair and his advisers discussed the Bush administration’s plans for war in Iraq. In addition to Daily Kos, prominent left-leaning blogs include Talking Points Memo, Eschaton, and, for commentary on Iraq, Informed Comment. While these sites are critical of the national press, their main fire is directed at the Bush administration. What’s more, these sites are not supported by an interconnected system of talk radio programs and cable television commentary, and their influence therefore tends to be much more limited.

The thick web of connections among right-wing commentators is typified by Hugh Hewitt. A law professor who once served as the director of the Nixon Library, Hewitt hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show from a studio in an Orange County, California, mall. In between chats with studio guests, he posts commentary on his blog, hughhewitt.com, which receives about 40,000 visits a day. He contributes a weekly column to the Daily Standard, the online edition of the conservative Weekly Standard. Hewitt is also an evangelical Christian who sees blogs as an effective way to spread the word of Christ. According to World, an evangelical monthly magazine, Hewitt “may well be the world’s leading blog-evangelist.” An entire Web site has been set up to record the blogs he has helped inspire; it currently lists more than 250. On his own blog, Hewitt regularly flags what he considers to be instances of anti-Christian bias in the press. In mid-June, for instance, when The New York Times ran an article about the growing number of evangelical chaplains in the armed forces and the tensions they were causing, Hewitt observed that this was the latest installment in the Times‘s “Drive Evangelicals from the Military” series.5

  1. 4

    For an analysis raising questions about CBS’s internal investigation, see James Goodale’s article “The Flawed Report on Dan Rather,” The New York Review, April 7, 2005, and the correspondence that followed in The New York Review, May 12, 2005.

  2. 5

    For more on Hewitt and his influence, see Nicholas Lemann, “Right Hook,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2005.

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