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This was the presidential election when the mainstream media met their match.

A different kind of media force took hold during the campaign between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. The rise of alternative media reached new heights, thanks to Internet bloggers, cable television comedy shows and documentary films.

For every mainstream media action, there seemed to be an alternative media reaction.

Kerry went on "Meet the Press." Kerry went on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.

Dan Rather questioned Bush's National Guard service on "60 Minutes." Web bloggers broke the story that the documents Rather used may have been false.

Michael Moore earned over $100 million with his anti-Bush documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/1 1." Sinclair Broadcast Group aired a controversial news special "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media," critical of Kerry.

The list goes on but the point is clear: The rules of the media game have changed. No longer can the mainstream powers, such as CBS, the New York Times, Newsweek and CNN set and control the news agenda. They must not only compete in a new media landscape but also answer to the competitors.

Stewart crystallized the differences between the new and old media when he appeared on CNN's "Crossfire" earlier this month.

"I wanted to come here today and say stop hurting America," Stewart told Crossfire's Tucker Carlson. "You're doing theater, when you should be doing debate. What you do is not honest."

It took a comedian being serious to point out the absurdity often found in cable talk shows. Stewart was telling CNN to basically stop trying to be Comedy Central.

The dilemma of mainstream media goes much deeper. "They are under more constraints than ever before," said Edward Wasserman, a Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. "They are less likely to be enterprising and adventurous. They are more likely to fall into personality-driven election coverage: "What's Teresa Heinz Kerry going to say next?'"

Recent scandals, such as the "60 Minutes" program on Bush and false stories by Jayson Blair in the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today, made the mainstream media, "nervous," Wasserman said. "Then there's the unrelenting assault from conservative critics who constantly scrutinize what the media do for signs of liberal bias."

For the alternative and new media, "it's not clear what standards hold," Wasserman said. "Many of them are careful, scrupulous journalists. They fact check and hold people to accountability - that you would think the mainstream media should be doing. But the blog world includes a lot of hacks, and transparent political operatives."

So, putting up the mainstream against alternative media is a clash of values and style.

"One is less effective, less confident, less insightful and less illuminating than ever," Wasserman said, referring to traditional media. "The other is kind of exploding with stuff, some of which is fascinating and valuable, and some of which is worthless and obnoxious and harmful."

The mainstream has to battle a danger of becoming irrelevant.

"They did a very poor job of setting the issues of this campaign," Wasserman said, referring to such topics as homeland security and loss of jobs. "The media needs to take these kinds of issues and do exhaustive, ground level reporting that would enable voters to figure out what to do."

Despite those criticisms, this election brought a huge voter turnout and the public appeared to have an insight to the issues both Bush and Kerry emphasized.

"I have many criticisms over campaign coverage, but if the standard is getting people out to vote and informing people where the candidates stand, then the media did its job" said Alex Jones. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times, now the director of the press, politics and public policy center at Harvard University.

"The mainstream media did its job, if its job consists of serving as an amplifier for the very narrow range of issues the candidates believe they can derive advantage from," Wasserman said.

The kind of feisty attitude of the alternative media is beginning to rub off on the mainstream.

"We're certainly moving toward a more opinionated discourse," Wasserman said. "I think you will see a kind of resurrection of advocacy journalism. That's OK as long as we continue to revere facts."

The mainstream press' challenge is to retain traditional values, such as fairness and accuracy, while fighting to survive in a new media world. Regardless, the alternative media staked its claim as a provider of news and information during this election and is here to stay.


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