Sunday, July 25, 2010

Age of Ragin' Partisan Journalism

It's worth a read, at Politico:


Here’s the optimistic case: The embarrassment of the Shirley Sherrod story — with its toxic convergence of partisan combat and media recklessness — will be a tipping point. It will remind journalists and politicians alike that personal reputations and professional credibility are at stake, and a bit more restraint and responsibility are in order.

Here’s the realistic case: Get ready for more of the same.

Every president since the first George Bush has delivered an inaugural address including as a main theme an appeal for more civility and less cynical conflict. Barack Obama is the fourth in a row to be thwarted in this mission — frustrated by forces that have grown far stronger over the past two decades and aren’t abating any time soon.

That is because there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s a lot more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.

The Sherrod controversy is only a somewhat exaggerated version of the new normal. The usual signatures of this new breed of incentive-driven uproar were also on display in another of this week’s controversies, over JournoList, the defunct liberal listserv.

Both stories featured sharp personal attacks against political opponents. Both revolved around indignant claims from people claiming to be victims of bias and the corrupt ideological agendas of their opponents — all the while stoking and profiting from the bias and conspiratorial instincts of partisans on their own side.

Responsible people in power and in the mainstream media are only beginning to grapple with this new environment — in which facts hardly matter except as they can be used as weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. Do you dive into the next fact-lite partisan outrage — or do you stay out and risk looking slow, stupid or irrelevant? No one is close to figuring it out.

So, despite a new burst of hand-wringing and talk of “lessons learned,” many commentators predicted in interviews that the situation involving Shirley Sherrod would soon enough be regarded as merely another footnote in the Age of Rage.

I don't think we're in any new age that's newer than any collapse of what political scientists used to call "objective journalism." It's just a faster news-cycle these days, with more participants to add to the spin.