Mainstream media and beach volleyball

Fairly interesting weekend for us fans of beach volleyball and the vocation we used to call journalism. George Bush had some quality beach volleyball time with Misty May-Treanor. And the pooh-bahs in the media got to slap the ball back and forth all weekend trying to figure out why the mainstream media were late to the John Edwards implosion.

I think the pundits were having every bit as much fun as W. First, Edwards proved once again that the oldest public relations trick in the book — dumping a bad-news story late in the day on Friday — no longer works.  Even with the Olympics getting under way, the Edwards story received plenty of attention on TV, in print and online.

And beyond the story of Edwards and his infidelity — and the fact that Elizabeth knew but didn’t tell — is what this says about journalism these days. Especially the widening gap between old and new media. There are plenty of articles about how the press handled this situation, but Howard Kurtz has an interesting perspective in The Washington Post this morning, “Affair Put Press In A Touchy Situation.”

The whispered allegations about John Edwards were an open secret that was debated in every newsroom and reported by almost none.

The story of Edwards’s affair with a former campaign aide became so widely known — what a Slate blogger called “undernews” — that by last week there seemed little point in the mainstream media gatekeepers’ keeping it isolated outside their moat. And yet, even as some national news organizations tried halfheartedly to confirm the tawdry tale, they ignored it in public — wary of the National Enquirer, of Edwards’s dismissal of “tabloid trash,” of wading once again into the swamp of sexual scandal without definitive proof.

And Kurtz gets to a key fact. The mainstream media are reluctant to report stories unless they can confirm the facts. In the case of Edwards, there was no court case, no official source, for journalists to use as the basis for the story. Edwards denied it. And he denied it vehemently. Kurtz writes:

The fact that big newspapers, magazines and networks have standards — that is, they refuse to print every stray rumor just because it’s “out there” — is one of their strengths. But in the latter stages of this case, it made them look clueless. Perhaps there is a middle ground where media outlets can report on a burgeoning controversy without vouching for the underlying allegations, being candid with readers and viewers about what they know and don’t know.

In the end, the much-derided MSM were superfluous, their monopoly a faded memory. People have hundreds of ways to obtain information in today’s instantaneous media culture, and are capable of reaching their own conclusions about what is reliable and what is not.

So among many other changes that are talking place in journalism, I think we are looking at the end of objectivity as one of the defining values of news reporting. The era of “he said, she said” is coming to a close. Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen. But it is a fact.

Here’s a story by Jonathan Dube on Poynteronline, “Lessons From Huffington Post.com.

How does The Huffington Post cover the news differently from mainstream media organizations?

Arianna Huffington

Huffington: A lot of the discontent with traditional journalism is because too many reporters have forgotten that the highest calling of journalists is to ferret out the truth, consequences be damned. Unfortunately, this is a concept that has fallen out of favor with too many journalists, who are obsessed with a false view of “balance” and “objectivity” and have become addicted not to the tireless pursuit of truth, but to the tireless promotion of the misguided notion that every story has two sides. And that the truth is supposed to be found somewhere in the middle. But not every story has two sides and the truth is often found on one side or the other. The earth is not flat. Evolution is a fact. Global warming is a fact. And there are definitely not two sides to the proposition that Iraq is our generation’s greatest foreign policy disaster. It is. Period.

HuffPost eschews the misleading “on the one hand, but on the other” approach to news because not every story has an “other hand.” Also, HuffPost doesn’t pretend not to have opinions, but it does make them transparent.

Let the media games begin. And I’ll bet John Edwards would give anything today to have the opportunity to trade places with W. and just spend some time on the beach playing volleyball.

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