Mainstream media flunk test but don’t even know it

The continuing controversy over the community activist group ACORN is either a non-news event created (or at least stoked) by Fox News and conservative talk radio, or a national scandal that shows how mainstream media ignores news that’s inconvenient to their entrenched biases.

It all depends on the which media archetypes you subscribe to. That is, what story line you buy into.

Western mass media have long embraced the role of watchdog for the “little guy” against abuses of power and proudly adopted the moniker, ”The Fourth Estate” (a term apparently coined by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th Century to refer to the check that media provided against abuses of power by the three vestiges of power in England: the clergy, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It works as well in American parlance to the watchdog role media provide against corruption in government, manifested by the three branches of the Federal Government — or, more broadly, against corruption by the powerful: politicians, corporations and the wealthy.)

But the distinction within that last part of the previous parenthetical reference is important — some want their watchdogs to be watching out for abuses by a menacing and over-reaching Federal government, and others most want protection from rich and powerful interests manifested by “evil corporations” and “the wealthy.’

Mainstream media in America (network news, newspapers and news magazines) have largely adopted the broadest definition of power abuse to stand guard against — government AND corporations and the rich. Within this archetypal framework, media begin by viewing corporations and the wealthy suspiciously, until proven otherwise, while public interest groups, charities and other non-profits are viewed from a favorable starting point, until proven otherwise. Perhaps that tilt is required to be fair and balanced, if you assume that the voices of corporate and moneyed interests generally are louder than the voice of “the little guy.”

Nevertheless, it is the pervasiveness of this bias in ”mainstream” American media that created the opportunity for conservative radio hosts and Fox News commentators to find a large audience who don’t want a liberal filter on their news. (Plenty of them want to listen only to right-wing boosterism, but you have to believe a whole lot of people just want it “straight.”)

But what’s really interesting about the ACORN flap is going largely unreported, even on the Poynter Online, a fantastic source of journalistic self-critique and introspection. (The only item I could find on Poynter was this rather self-righteous explanation from the Austin American-Statesman about why it had been so late in covering the ACORN controversy.)

What’s really interesting is how the ACORN stings demonstrate the sudden rise in influence of a new ”Fifth Estate” — largely unfunded citizen journalists with the self-appointed mission to report news from their own perspective, and often, to dramatize what they see as bias or blindness in traditional media.

Anyone with a cell phone camera is a potential cit-j, sometimes augmenting traditional news sources in important ways. for example, on-the-scene reports from Iran’s citizen-journalist dissenters have helped keep world attention on Iraq’s rigged elections, long after that country’s crackdown on traditional media reports. But cit-j’s are also stepping forward in this country to cover “news” that isn’t covered in mainstream media. The videos that have brought national scandal to ACORN were not elaborate or particularly well produced. And they cost next to nothing. In an age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it no longer takes the resources of a major news organization to reach an audience of millions.

Of course, members of the “Fifth Estate” by and large didn’t go to journalism school and have no editor looking over their shoulders making sure that information they report is well-researched and truthful. And that raises a new challenge for the Fourth Estate — to provide a check back on information put out by the Cit-j’s, without automatically discounting its value and assuming that if it was dug up and disseminated by amateurs it isn’t worthy of reporting in the mainstream.

- Jon Harmon

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