It's A Big (Media) World After All
The New York Times has a circulation of a little over 1 million people. Based on the attention it gets from media critics, bloggers, and politicians, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that number was significantly higher.
Seemingly every word in the paper is parsed by both professional and self-styled media critics. Yesterday the popular media Web site Romenesko featured a piece from (my friend and former colleague) Gal Beckerman on how he doesn't trust the Times' coverage of the New York Times Company's "shareholder revolt." Romenesko also linked Staci Kramer's item on how the Times' Web site was down for four hours Wednesday evening "without even a cursory apology or explanation." (The nerve!) Meanwhile, bloggers continually parse everything printed in the paper in search of bias, inconsistency, or inaccuracy. When it comes to Times bashing, in fact, even politicians get in on the act.
There's no doubt that the Times remains an enormously important newspaper, in spite of the criticisms and crises it has had to weather in recent years. It helps set the agenda for newspapers around the country, radio and cable talking heads, and television news outlets both local and national, and it has a reach far beyond its subscribers. But one has to wonder if the scrutiny paid to the Times outweighs its influence. There's only so much scrutiny to go around, after all. And even if you think the Times deserves the close inspection it receives – you might recall that the New Republic just gave us a 4,000 word cover on the "Thursday Styles" section – it's not like this Times obsessing takes place in a vacuum. While media critics pore over the paper of record, vast swathes of the media universe go virtually ignored.
Consider local television news, that repository of "Your Carpet Will Kill You" stories, inaccurate reporting, and if-it-bleeds-it-leadsism. (Take out traffic, weather and sports, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and half of local news time is devoted to crime and accidents. That percentage is even higher when it comes to the lead stories.) Sometimes, a media critic will turn out a nice critique of television news, but such efforts are few and far between. One might point out that local news is, well, local -- it doesn't have the reach of the Times, and thus isn't going to get much attention. But many of the problems with local news are national in scope, and certainly worthy of attention, particularly in light of the fact that far more Americans get their news from their local newscasts than they do from the Times or its almost-as-obsessed-over sister, The Washington Post.
Underlying all of this, of course, is the widely-held perception that the Times and Post represent "real journalism," while local newscasts are something else entirely. There is something to that belief, but putting too much stock in it is self indulgent. The media universe is what it is, and if media critics really care about what's being consumed by the public – and isn't that ultimately the point? – they should look to the corners of the media universe they usually neglect. Otherwise their whole endeavor risks looking more like a self-involved exercise among media obsessives than a real public service.
This isn't just a problem when it comes to the Times, either. When media critics do deign to discuss television, for example, they tend to focus on Fox News and its big, juicy, easy target, Bill O'Reilly. But O'Reilly is a relatively minor player when all is said and done, a guy with two and a half million viewers per night, far less than the network newscasts. Yet most media critics would rather obsess over him than consider someone like Brian Williams or Bob Schieffer. This isn't that much of a surprise – O'Reilly is confrontational, whereas all anyone ever seems to say about Schieffer is that he's "folksy," and O'Reilly is staking out much more controversial positions than the "Evening News" anchor. But what it means is that someone with a smaller audience gets a disproportionate amount of attention. (Yes, yes, there was plenty of discussion of Katie Couric and whether she would come to CBS News. But that was celebrity journalism, not media criticism.)
And then there's talk radio, regional newspapers, and morning news shows, all of which too often fly almost altogether under the radar. (It's telling that some of the only critics who do pay much attention to the above, those at Media Research Center and Media Matters, work for organizations whose mission it is to change public opinion, not do media criticism for its own sake.) Having critiqued the media for a few years now, I do understand the temptation to focus on outlets like the Times, Fox News, and the Washington Post. I've certainly been guilty of the exact tendency that I'm now criticizing. When I worked for Columbia Journalism Review, I poured over the Times while paying little attention to the nightly newscasts; here at Public Eye, I spend far more time focused on "60 Minutes" and the "Evening News" than the "Early Show."
But if media critics are interested in performing a public service, they need to resist the urge to only bother with those segments of the media universe that appeal to them. Instead of deeming local news hopeless and ignoring it, they could look closer and find something worthwhile to say. Instead of dismissing morning shows as fluff, they could actually sit down and watch them for a while. Sure, it might be a little more entertaining to flip through the Times looking for a misstep to crow about. But the Times is getting plenty of attention these days, isn't it? Wouldn't it be nice if a few media critics stepped away from the ivory tower and got just a little bit closer to the real world?