Columns » Max Brantley

Media accountability

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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.

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