The Great Media Meltdown

...and what lies beyond: Open-Source Media

By Evan Coyne Maloney

How many times can the media cry wolf before people stop listening?

With alarming frequency, the traditional news media works itself into a lather about things that never happened. Remember the (supposedly) wholesale looting of the Iraqi National Museum? In what was then described as "a rape of civilization," we were told that 170,000 antiquities were stolen. Turns out the actual number of stolen artifacts is 33. If the initial numbers represented a rape, then the reality turned out to be more like a kindergarten game of run-catch-kiss.

No matter. Whether the traditional media gets minor details like facts wrong is secondary to whether the media portrays what it believes is the correct impression of reality. And the reality is that looting and rioting are widespread in Iraq, neither water nor electricity are flowing, and hospitals and schools are closed. Or maybe not.

It's easy to draw the conclusion that the media's repeated misreporting is the result of political bias, because in just about every case, the bogus reports support the contentions of those on the left. Consider the left's argument that the Iraq war was a "war for oil": unable to use facts to present its case, The Guardian took out of context a few words in a phrase uttered by Paul Wolfowitz and turned it into a story whose headline blared: "Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil." When astute readers pointed out that Wolfowitz said no such thing, the resulting embarrassment forced The Guardian to retract the story.

Similar misquotes made it into the pages of The New York Times recently, and not just in the stories of Jayson Blair. Opinion columnist Maureen Dowd recently misquoted President Bush by chopping key clauses from consecutive sentences. Dowd's surgical strike on the president's statement conveniently changed the meaning entirely--into something Dowd subsequently attacked. (Apparently, Dowd can find so little wrong with what the president actually says that she is now forced to concoct her own quotes just to have something to complain about.) That the Times never issued a correction shows that the paper tolerates Jayson Blair tactics as long as they serve a political purpose; dozens of other papers that used Dowd's version of the quote later issued retractions.

Deciphering the Chatter

You don't have to be an intelligence analyst to connect the dots: in each of these cases, the mistakes, misquoting and misreporting had the effect of sowing doubt about U.S. intentions, President Bush's veracity, and our military. Even if there was no conscious effort behind any of this, the net effect is that media consumers received a distorted view of reality, one that carries with it a definite political slant to the left.

Fortunately, the left's monopoly on the news media is crumbling, and Fox News and The Washington Times aren't the only ones wielding the pick-axes. During the last five years, a new form of media emerged online, one that provides an important check against bias and sloppy reporting in the traditional media. Some are calling this movement open-source media, because it is revolutionizing the news business in much the same way that open-source software is revolutionizing the software industry.

The rise of the Internet enabled people scattered all over the globe to collaborate on software projects. Instead of software being the product of a single company whose internal processes are hidden from view, open-source software exposes the development process to the world and encourages participation. Many remarkable projects have resulted: the most widely-used web server in the world (Apache), and the operating system that Microsoft views as the biggest threat to its monopoly (Linux) to name just a couple.

The open-source process tends to produce software that is more secure, more stable, better performing and less buggy than closed-source software. That's the benefit of exposing the development process to more eyes and therefore greater scrutiny: higher quality results. The same is true with open-source media. In the past, errors committed by the traditional media were much less likely to be discovered, and when they were, the errors were more easily covered up. This is no longer possible, thanks to open-source media.

When Goliath First Stumbled

In January 1998, the open-source media scooped the traditional media for the first time when Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story after learning that Newsweek planned--and then killed--a cover story on the scandal.

Naturally, many in the traditional media weren't too happy that their power was being challenged; as Drudge rose to prominence, some news veterans squawked that Internet reporting was not true journalism. Because web reporters are not filtered by finicky fact-checkers and experienced editors, the argument went, they simply couldn't be trusted. But that argument is quite flimsy in light of the traditional media's recent errors; now, all the fact-checkers and editors in the world can't clothe the nude emperors of the old media.

Since that pivotal moment in 1998, Internet reporting has developed an entirely new form of editorial infrastructure: one that provides a highly-interconnected form of information propagation similar to online file-swapping services, and one that encourages participation like an open-source software project.

This infrastructure comes in the form of web logs, or "blogs". Blogs, which generally consist of short commentaries centering on reports from other sources, represent the second revolution in online reporting. They're a solution to the original criticism of Internet media: that it lacks the editorial infrastructure of established outlets.

Blogs: The New Editorial Board

Blogs are both democratic and Darwinian. They're democratic because anyone can participate by creating a blog. As a result, blogs cover stories that are deemed worthy of note by a much larger portion of the population than what's considered "fit to print" by a handful of liberals on 43rd Street. Blogs are Darwinian because untruths eventually disintegrate under the watchful eyes of self-appointed fact-checkers who revel in ferreting out inaccuracies. As a result, open-source media is self-regulating: truth eventually receives the amplification it deserves, and fraud eventually receives the criticism it requires.

Of course, this new form of media requires different ways of digesting news. Most blogs are maintained by individuals or just a few people. As such, blogs are likely to represent a more distinct bias than traditional news outlets. This is not inherently bad; in fact, because bloggers rarely attempt to hide their biases, news consumers can evaluate what they read in light of the bias of the source. Traditional media outlets, on the other hand, do not acknowledge their biases and instead take great pains to convey the impression that they are without bias. As a result, when bias does seep into the reporting of traditional outlets, it tends to be much more subtle and harder to detect, making it difficult for news consumers to properly evaluate the reports they receive.

Detecting hidden bias is like detecting an accent; the greater the difference between someone else's accent and your own, the more likely you are to label that person as "having an accent." Similarly, if you encounter someone who has the same accent as you, you will probably think of that person as having no accent at all. The truth is, just as everyone has an accent, everyone has a bias. The likelihood of picking up someone's bias depends upon how much that bias differs from your own. That's why you can find plenty of people who say CNN has a bias, and plenty of people who say Fox News Channel has a bias, but rarely do you find someone who sees bias in both.

Meet the Balkanized Press

What happens when audiences begin to receive news from only those outlets with biases close to their own? An increasingly fragmented media may make it less likely that people will be confronted with uncomfortable truths that do not align with their worldview. It is possible that entire segments of society will only receive news tailored to their beliefs and that they will be unaware of news that isn't conveyed by their chosen outlets. In fact, this has already been happening for years: people who only read The New York Times, watch CNN and listen to NPR have a vastly different view of the world than people who venture off the liberal plantation.

As the media continues to fragment, the political fault lines dividing the populace will become more acute unless consumers make a concerted effort to receive information from several sources with differing perspectives. Doing this will be difficult as long as traditional news outlets refuse to acknowledge their biases. However, traditional outlets may soon realize that they have a market incentive for leveling with consumers: until they do, outlets will continue to shed the portions of their audience that find the denial of their bias as maddening as the bias itself.

This may explain why CNN--once the undisputed leader of cable news--now consistently trails Fox News Channel in ratings. Not only do a significant number of people detect bias in the reporting of CNN, they also find it frustrating that nobody at CNN will own up to it. This gives the audience two reasons to leave. First, the denials make certain segments of the audience feel like they're being played for fools. Second, to people who detect bias in CNN's reporting, the denials leave the impression that they are being deliberately deceived, giving them reason to question the credibility of everything else CNN reports.

As long as traditional news outlets cling to their pretensions of complete objectivity--is complete objectivity even possible with these very subjective beings called humans?--the influence of outlets like blogs will continue to rise. The question isn't whether the Internet is a legitimate reporting medium. (It is.) The question is, how long will it take for the traditional media to figure out why more and more people are turning to alternative online sources to enhance their understanding of the news?

Evan Maloney's political commentary is archived at