Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Press as "Flappers"


        Jonathan Swift would understand the MSM's resentment of bloggers: we took away their job of "flapping" the public.

At Length:

        I haven't written much for the last two days, as I've been mulling over a comprehensive Plamegate/Miller Follies post.  I hope to have that up today, but first, a story about the MSM, which played so large a role in this nonsense.  I have frequently cited one of my earliest posts, Editing as Lying.  Here, I'd like to approach that from a slightly different angle.

        In Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver ends up in Laputa, sometimes referred to as "Cloud Cuckoo Land."  The inhabitants of Laputa are utterly impractical and theoretical, with many strange customs.  One such custom is "flappers."  These are servants to public officials, who carry air-filled bladders (think toy balloons).  If someone wishes to talk to an official, the official can't hear them unless the flapper "flaps" (lightly strikes) his ears with the bladders.  And the official can't answer unless the official flaps his mouth.  Flappers were of course a satiric take on secretaries, spokesmen, and others who controlled access to public officials.

        Flappers are a necessity for anyone in the public eye, else cranks, fanatics and trolls would be constantly haranguing them, and thus preventing the accomplishment of any work by said officials.  The problem is, flappers figured out long ago that they could manipulate the decisions of their officials by selective flapping: don't let the boss hear from someone, and make sure he hears from others, and you acquire a large measure of control over the official.

        "News is what I say it is, it's what I say is important," David Brinkley was quoted as saying by the late Edith Efron.  Efron added that Brinkley was right, that the inherent limitations of reporting the news meant that the press had to leave out almost all information it could conceivably report, in order to restrict itself to what's important -- and they were the only ones in a position to decide what was important.  The MSM thus act as flappers to the public, restricting what the public can hear.  As with public officialdom's flappers, they figured out that they could use this power to manipulate the public.

        There was a great example of this in Minnesota in the 1980s.  Wheelock Whitney, Independent-Republican candidate for Governor, was going down against Rudy Perpich, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate.  In Minnesota, the candidates for governor and Lt.. Governor are on one ticket.  The Whitney campaign had IR activist Dan Cohen give four reporters some documents on Perpich's running mate, Marlene Johnson, showing she'd been convicted of "petit theft."  (Details of the charge weren't in the documents, and the conviction was later vacated.)  Arguably, this was an unimportant story, and one of the four just didn't run it (in fact Cohen, in retrospect, says it was a cheap shot, and he shouldn't have brought it up) .  A second reporter used it, identifying the source as a Whitney partisan.  But our local substitutes for newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, both chose to run the story AND identify Cohen as the source.  Cohen sued (and won, after going to the U.S. Supreme Court once, and the Minnesota Supreme Court twice).  At trial, the papers had all kinds of excuses about why they were justified in breaking their word, why the information was an illegitimate smear, why the public needed to know the name and place of employment of the source (although Cohen was fired that day, by a boss who didn't want the local papers and the future governor mad at him).  But the oddest thing they said was that if Cohen had given it to one reporter exclusively, they'd have been much more likely to leave him anonymous.

        What does exclusivity have to do with anything?  Cohen's lawyer thought it was a monetary thing — the paper wanted a circulation-enhancing scoop (see his book on the case, The Taming of the Press).  But in his own memoir, Anonymous Source, Cohen has a different theory about 'exclusivity.'

        The whole affair started when a Wheelock campaigner was on a radio talk show.  After they went off the air, the host asked the campaigner if he'd heard that Perpich's running mate had been arrested?  The Whitney partisan went to the courthouse and found the records.  She'd been arrested twice, once for unlawful assembly (probably a civil rights demonstration; no charges filed), once for the misdemeanor theft she was charged with and convicted of.  Those were the records that were copied and given to Cohen to pass to the local media.  When he was doing this, one of the reporters said he'd heard about the arrest before.  No one said anything like, "Wow, I had no idea."

        In short, Cohen thinks, the newspapers almost certainly knew of the candidate's arrest record.  They refused to flap the public's ears and let potential voters know.  If Cohen had offered it to one paper exclusively, he'd have stayed anonymous, because they wouldn't have run the story.  But by giving it to four, he forced their hand.  If they sat on it, and someone else published it, too many questions would be asked about why they didn't use it.  So exposing Cohen was revenge for forcing them to say something they didn't want to say.

        And this is why they hate the blogosphere so bitterly.  The MSM cherishes its right not to publish as much or more as they do their right to talk.  Michael Kinsley had a telling anecdote on this:
        A very distinguished New York Times writer once told me that if the Times ballet critic, heading home after assessing the day's offerings of pliés and glissades, happens to witness a murder on her way to the Times Square subway, she has a First Amendment right and obligation to refuse to testify about what she saw.

        Bloggers are alternative flappers to the public, allowing them to hear things the MSM doesn't want them to hear.  In turn, the public puts pressure on the MSM, asking why certain stories aren't being covered.  The press ends up forced to report things they'd like to have buried.

       In the Plamegate mess, at first the MSM wanted to say that no WMDs had been found because intelligence was slanted.  When the Administration fought back, they wanted to spread the (false) story that the White House was smearing people.  When the Novak column was published, they wanted an investigation, by a special prosecutor, but with the press recognized as not having to speak.  If they'd gotten it, the investigation would have uncovered nothing, and then they would have spread the story that the it was a 'White Wash by the White House.'  Or see how the New York Times, after promoting Joe Wilson, has been less than enthusiastic about reporting things that undermine his credibility.

        I can't say I blame them for being mad.  I don't like it either, when I'm forced to do something I didn't want to do in the first place.  But if an institution claims to be an accurate, honest and unbiased news source, it's what's morally required.



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