Saturday, May 27, 2006

Jack Shafer Defends the Fire Hydrant

Jack Shafer (editor-at-large for Slate) has a cursory review of Eric Boehlert's new book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. He notes that Boehlert mostly criticizes "TV news and the various barking-head commentary programs," but Shafer largely dismisses the book because, he asserts:
Any convincing critique of the mainstream media, or MSM, must take down the two biggest dogs, the The New York Times and the Washington Post, which throw more reporters at the political coverage than any other news organizations and provide most of the press corps its marching instructions.
Boy, does that sentence stick in my craw. Shafer is usually an intelligent commentator; I can't explain why he would write a statement that, if I were in a generous mood, I would regard as naively parochial.

Shafer needs to leave the big city a little more often. I challenge him to take a trip to Des Moines (as I do frequently for business) or Louisville (ditto) or Tacoma (where I'm from) and hang out in a suburban diner or a local bar and ask, "Did you see that article in The New York Times today?" (Advice for Jack: Leave that sports coat in your hotel room.) In fact, before heading off to that bar, he should try hunting down a location where he can buy either paper.

The very idea that The New York Times and the Washington Post--in terms of influence or audience--are "the two biggest dogs" is absurd on its face. These days, they could hardly even be called mice. Regardless of how many reporters either paper has sniffing around the White House lawn, the average American voter has never seen a copy of The New York Times, much less the Post.

The two papers each have circulations of 1.1 million and 730,000 respectively--and those figures include an increasing number of copies that are ignored by vacation-goers and convention attendees outside the doors of their hotel rooms. Most residents outside the NYC and DC metro areas regard both papers as local affairs; a resident of Des Moines would just as soon read a copy of the Denver Post.

Boehlert's focus is absolutely right: The overwhelming majority of Americans get their knowledge of national affairs from "TV news and the various barking-head commentary programs," as well as from national weekly magazines. The sad truth: a single episode of The O'Reilly Factor or Hardball has more reach than an entire week's worth of inky birdcage liner distributed by either paper. In the national discourse, the political coverage offered by newspapers has a rapidly decreasing influence outside the social bubble populated by a few wonks. Even on a "non-partisan" issue like immigration, can Shafer name a dozen newspaper reporters or commentators who cumulatively have had more influence on what Americans think than has Lou Dobbs?

Shafer knows this, but that's not the way things are in his narrow little world inside the Beltway. So he provides himself with a caveat; that the two papers "provide most of the press corps its marching instructions."

You have got to be kidding me.

Perhaps by "marching instructions" he means the war against the type of journalism Shafer insists can be found in the two self-proclaimed newspapers of record. After all, millions of viewers saw Tony Snow issue these marching orders:
It seems pretty clear based on that that The New York Times itself may have broken federal law. What about the idea of also bringing The New York Times under the aegis of the Espionage Act?
More Americans (an estimated audience of 2 million) heard William Bennett say "that New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau and Washington Post staff writer Dana Priest ... should be jailed" than those who actually read their original articles.

But I suppose I should get used to finding such penetrating analysis at Slate--whose declining readership is rapidly entering the subterranean space occupied by the New York Post online.