Favorite

Media accountability 

Who's the most unaccountable player in the political process?

Not the candidates. The media scrutinize them. Laws provide limits on campaign finance and require disclosure of personal financial information. If elected, politicians must answer to voters and their public activities are open to broad inspection.

But what about the media? Accountability is almost nil. This is partially for good reason. The First Amendment doesn't — and shouldn't — allow government to get into the business of regulating news outlets. They are accountable to readers to a degree — break readers' trust and you'll have fewer readers. But in the ebb and flow of daily news coverage, a journalistic malpractice isn't likely to cause much backlash or lasting economic consequence. This is particularly true in a world where monopoly daily newspapers are something akin to a public utility. People who want obits, ball scores and other basics are compelled to buy them no matter how little they like them.

With a few exceptions, editors hold themselves unaccountable to the public. They rarely explain or defend news decisions, beyond grudging correction of errors. Many of them won't even take calls from the public. Financial disclosure, either about newspaper ownership or its employees? Good luck. Newspapers decry potential conflicts of interest on the part of public officials, but almost never discuss their own.

But the media world is changing.

Last week, the New York Times published a story about John McCain's cozy relationship with lobbyists. The newspaper made the misjudgment of emphasizing sexual innuendo, rather than special interest influence on McCain. A torrent of criticism followed. The day of publication, the Times offered its top editor and others to answer questions on-line about the story in hopes of damping a web frenzy. It was a marked departure from the sneering disdain with which Times editors treated criticism from Gene Lyons and others of its shoddy Whitewater reporting.

In 1992, the glory days of the Whitewater scandal, the web was in its infancy, before the explosion of on-line political commentary. Video is now instantly available to quote-check print for accuracy and editing. But the fact-checking is deeper than that. Let a newspaper regurgitate a politician's exaggeration at face value and you can bet a website will put the lie to it in minutes. Better still, the new digital media often focus on the news media themselves, biases and all. They know which reporters are prone to error; which ones are married to political operatives. And they use this information generously when context demands. Major newspaper staffs absolutely hate getting the scrutiny that was once solely their province.

Locally, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette chose not to carry or mention the Times' original McCain story, perhaps on account of its flimsy sourcing on the sex angle. Bad call. The D-G had no choice but to catch up on the second day as, inevitably, the controversy grew.

Moral: An editor may no longer declare something is a non-story in Arkansas and be confident that the story will not see the light here. A web “publisher” can send it around the world in a split-second, including to a growing percentage of homes in Arkansas.

The cost of big presses and network cameras once put broad information distribution in the hands of a shrinking few corporations. No more. And you won't hear me complaining.

Favorite

Sign up for the Daily Update email

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Max Brantley

Readers also liked…

  • Double-talk

    A couple of instances of doublespeak cropped up in Little Rock over the weekend.
    • Jun 29, 2017
  • Along the civil rights trail

    A convergence of events in recent days signaled again how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in civil rights.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • The Oval outhouse

    One thing all Americans finally can agree upon is that public discourse has coarsened irretrievably in the era of Donald Trump and largely at his instance.
    • Jan 18, 2018

Latest in Max Brantley

  • Now, the main event

    I write Tuesday morning, before polls close on primary and judicial election contests.
    • May 24, 2018
  • Are you being served?

    These aren't good times for confidence in public servants.

    • Mar 22, 2018
  • Send in the segs

    The state Board of Education last week rejected requests from Camden Fairview, Hope, Lafayette County and Junction City to be exempt from the state law requiring students to be able to freely transfer between school districts.
    • Mar 15, 2018
  • More »

Most Viewed

  • Now, the main event

    I write Tuesday morning, before polls close on primary and judicial election contests.
  • Like wrestling

    So what's it going to be, America: a democratic republic, or Trumpistan? A nation governed by the rule of law, or an oversized kleptocracy, whose maximum leader uses the decayed shell of government to punish his political enemies and reward friends and family?
  • Trade places

    I confess that over the years I've wished a fall from grace upon a number of people. I've come to call it the "Trading Places Award." The recipient is someone who has shown no compassion or empathy for someone else in a tough situation.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Like wrestling

    • Great reminder/summary. So much happens in Trumpistan that last week's news seems like months ago…

    • on May 23, 2018
  • Re: Talking baseball

    • I loved Bill Elder "calling" the Travs games on the road. He did it by…

    • on May 22, 2018
  • Re: Talking baseball

    • 1090 was Little Rock's own Mighty 1090 KAAY, the greatest radio station ever. But i…

    • on May 22, 2018
 

© 2018 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation