I've been reading these sites and others like them for years. And I have a theory: People who call themselves media critics, for the most part, think of themselves first and foremost as print media critics. They don't seem to have much interest in TV news or radio, at least from a journalistic perspective. (They do care about the Internet, of course, but usually for what they read, not what they watch or hear.)
When they do write about television, most critics tend to focus on the business side of things – the future of the nightly newscasts, for example. Or they zero in on television news personalities like Katie and Dan and Peter. When they write on print media, by contrast, media critics raise questions around the quality of the actual journalism – the content itself. This isn't true in all cases, of course. In a world as large and diverse as that of the media, there are bound to be numerous exceptions to every rule. But I think it's fair to say that, in general, media critics tend to cover TV news like they might show business. When they want to do work they consider more serious, on the other hand – the kind that makes them feel like they're engaged in a Serious and Important Enterprise – they turn to print.
Consider the media firestorm around Judy Miller. I can barely remember a time when you could get your daily dose of Romenesko without coming across multiple stories on Ms. Run Amok. (At this point, even her ex-editor has Judy fatigue.) Yes, part of this has to do with Miller's personality and her high profile stint in the clink. But the focus on Miller has been primarily on her journalistic sins, both as a reporter and as a First Amendment crusader. Her paper, the New York Times, gets obsessed over to an absurd degree, with seemingly every article parsed on blogs and figures like disgraced reporter Jayson Blair elevated to cultural touchstones. (And don't get Bill O'Reilly started. Please.) Other papers get a lot of attention too, often in the context of stories about the general decline of the quality of newspapers – or lack of decline, depending on which critic is writing. (There are, of course, also numerous pieces on the business side of newspapers, focused on consolidation and cost cutting. But they are inevitably informed by questions of how the business decisions are going to impact the quality of the journalism.) Individual print reporters regularly get singled out for criticism, with everyone from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank to The Detroit Free Press' Mitch Albom to the Associated Press' Nedra Pickler getting attacked for their alleged transgressions or biased coverage. (Pickler even got her very own insulting graphic.)
TV news gets plenty of criticism too. But it's of a different kind. While print journalism is often obsessed over in minute detail, TV criticism tends towards the big picture. To whit: Cable shoutfests are bad. The morning shows are a joke. CBS is liberal. Fox is conservative. When they turn their attention to television, media critics are more likely to write in broad strokes than they are to level criticisms at individual stories or segments. They might write about the nightly newscasts in general, but they are unlikely to focus on the content of a particular broadcast or segment. And once they've written their big picture piece about television – something along the lines of "Jon Stewart Was Right" -- they move back to the world of print, where they can get at something specific – say, the problem with the recent comments of the Washington Post's Bob Woodward.
The lines aren't entirely clear here, of course. The Times, for example, regularly gets pilloried as liberal. But I want to contrast media critics' treatment of the Times with their treatment of CBS News, which have both recently undergone scandals – and been painted as prime examples of the mainstream media's lefty tilt. Dan Rather and Mary Mapes got a lot of attention from conservative bloggers looking to prove a point about "MSM" bias, but mainstream media critics didn't explore their work with anything near the vigor their brought to their examinations of Blair and Miller. As for the editors: When Howell Raines left the Times, he got 80-kazzilion words and the front cover of the Atlantic. There were countless stories about his management technique, his allies and enemies, and his personal style. The departure of CBS News chief Andrew Heyward, meanwhile, isn't getting anything near that kind of coverage. And if you think he'll get offered the Atlantic cover story, well, I've got a newspaper chain I want to sell you.
I don't mean to take anything away from the work of media critics, many of whom regularly do interesting and informative work. But it's worth thinking about why they choose the topics they do. Here are four possible reasons:
1. Most media criticism is done in print, so media critics have a bias towards print journalism. Even here at CBS, the media criticism – and in case you didn't notice, you're reading it now, folks – is read, not watched.
2. Many media critics look at TV News and just think it's not very good. They feel that print journalism is more serious, and thus more worth their time. I used to work at Columbia Journalism Review – which was, for a long time, the Times Square of media criticism – and that tends to be the prevailing opinion.
3. Newspapers embraced self-criticism more quickly than other media. As Matea Gold wrote today in a piece on Public Eye and other recently created network blogs, "[t]he network blogs, while often remarkably candid and self-critical, have not yet generated a public debate comparable to those instigated in print." It's possible that Public Eye and its brethren, given time, will spur media critics to turn their attention to the medium that more Americans turn their attention to than any other – television.
4. Reporters can be lazy. I hate to throw this one out there, because I think most reporters are diligent and hardworking, but it sure seems like many media critics just don't watch TV news on a regular basis, at least until they have a reason to do so. Then they watch two episodes of a show and render a verdict. Additionally, it's a lot easier to find the link to a newspaper story online than it is to find a video clip of last night's "Evening News," and it's safe to assume media critics are drawn to the topics that are at their fingertips, not the ones that require heavy lifting.
I'm curious what you think. I can tell you that not everyone here at Public Eye agrees with my premise, and I think it would be wonderful to get a robust dialogue going about the topic. So use that little box below to tell me I'm great. Or, you know, not so much.