In a reversal of the old adage “dance with the one who brought ya,” outgoing British prime minister Tony Blair is taking shots at the press, calling it “a feral beast” â€” despite admitting that his government paid â€œinordinate attentionâ€ to â€œcourting, assuaging and persuading the media.â€
The title of his speech: “Reflections on the Future of Democracy and the Media, or Why Donâ€™t You Love Me?” (emphasis added; see full transcript)
A pack mentality less concerned with accuracy than impact has led to “the confusion of news and commentary,” says Mr. Blair:
The fear of missing out means todayâ€™s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out … (T)he media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims.
The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by â€˜impact.â€™ Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course, the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact.
Whoa. Talk about a hissy fit. What did he expect after backing President Bush’s ill-advised, cavalier misadventures in the Middle East? That’s the principal theme of some critics who responded with hissy fits of their own. Once the critics cool off, they’ll see some of Mr. Blair’s insights into the press are worthy of sober reflection.
Let’s hear from the critics first. The PM managed to irritate the hand that once fed him tea and crumpets. From The Financial Times:
The media has many faults. But responsibility for spin, cronyism, sofa government and the fatal misjudgment over Iraq lies with Mr. Blair and his government. Insisting he is misunderstood and only ever sought to â€˜do the right thingâ€™ willfully misunderstands that most criticism of him is about policy not morality, judgment not sincerity.
Says Maureen Dowd of The New York Times (TimesSelect req’d):
I worry more about the press when itâ€™s reverent rather than irreverent, when itâ€™s a tame lapdog, as it was in the buildup to Iraq, than when itâ€™s a feral beast. And I worry about politicians like W. and Blair being black and white rather than gray, as they were in building their hysterical, phony case against Saddam. We would have been well-served back then if Mr. Blair had explained to the jejune Junior that thereâ€™s some good, some bad, and some gray in the world, and that sometimes itâ€™s smarter to squeeze tyrants, rather than Shock-and-Awe them.
Peter Wilby, a former editor of the New Statesman and Independent, writes in The Guardian that Mr. Blair “still doesn’t get it”:
The difficulty with Blair’s speech is one of chicken and egg. Did the pressures of 24-hour news come first, or the politicians’ more manipulative approach to supplying news? Probably they developed together, but the politicians – who face real competitive pressure once in four years – were surely in a better position to go back to the more measured habits of old. Why didn’t Blair? The answer is that he survived a decade in office and, until the end, hardly suffered from, for example, taking the country to war on a patently false prospectus and entering dubious relationships with wealthy business people. The relationship between public life and the media might, as he says, “be damaged in a manner that requires repair”. But the media didn’t do him so badly, did they?
Gal Beckerman, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, objects to Mr. Blair painting the press with “one, large brush stoke” (sic):
Blair lamented that … â€œThings, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Lifeâ€™s usual gray is almost entirely absent.â€ But he himself, however, isnâ€™t allowing for much gray here. And itâ€™s a color that should come quickly to mind when thinking about his own treatment by his countryâ€™s contentious media â€“ after all, he rode into office and enjoyed his first few years with a press praising his every move, and only in recent years (since the start of a little war in Iraq) has his portrayal in the papers become increasingly negative.
In his speech, Mr. Blair blames the press’s “impact first, accuracy second” attitude on the fragmentation, diversification and transformation of media brought on by technological change. Newspaper markets are shrinking; blogs are increasing. It’s the speed at which the modern media must operate in a 24-7 environment that breeds thoughtlessness, he argues. Too much media effort is spent on commentary rather than reporting, he says, calling one British paper “a viewspaper not merely a newspaper.” That intense focus has consequences on people in public life, says Mr. Blair:
I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.
Reading between the lines, it appears that Mr. Blair’s speech is a call to the press to act less aggressively, especially in separating news from commentary. But Mr. Beckerman of CJR finds that argument self-serving and not the real issue:
The problem of news organizations these days is not an abundance of aggressiveness, but a certain timidity when it comes to stories that matter. Contrary to what Blair thinks, the press needs to be more ferocious, to turn away from stories that seem frivolous, to be its own feral beast and not care what anyone â€“ the market or the prime ministerâ€”might say about it.
Mr. Beckerman’s right. But Mr. Blair’s critique of the media also hits a few targets right on the nose.
The tendency of press to seek controversy and assign blame has increased dramatically, he says. The consequence: “Actually not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear.” The perceived unfairness of coverage pushes people in public life to place more layers of PR protection between themselves and the press, he says.
That, methinks, is an argument about an escalating information (or “spin,” depending on your point of view) arms race between the press and the politicians they cover. Calmer minds ought to chew that over for a while.
The press pushes relentlessly to assign blame, charges Mr. Blair. But they don’t stop there:
[A]ttacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. (sic) It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact. … News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.
Do I really have to come up with examples of this?
Somewhere between Mr. Blair’s remarks and those critical of them lies the reality of the relationship between the press and the politicians. Mr. Blair rightfully takes the press to task for some of this, and the critics rightfully respond. But Mr. Blair pinpoints the trends that have led to a ferociousness in this relationship â€” an insatiable news cycle, the burgeoning influence of the Internet that has made news an essentially “free good,” the need for news organizations to maintain profit in a time of declining readership and viewership, and the media’s perceived need for the audience “to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged” rather than their brains.
He also reminds us: “Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians.” News folks ignore that at their peril.
A critical mass has been reached, charges Mr. Blair. It’s led to a mediated world that is entirely inaccurate and filled with stereotypes:
The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual grey is almost entirely absent. “Some good, some bad”; “some things going right, some going wrong”: these are concepts alien to much of today’s reporting. It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is “a crisis”. A setback [is] a policy “in tatters”. A criticism, “a savage attack”.
After we press types get the anger over his remarks out of our system, we ought to re-read what Mr. Blair said. Much â€“ though not all â€” of what he said has merit.
xpost: 5th Estate