James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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The Smoking Gun: FAIR criticism of media

Posted by James McPherson on January 9, 2009

Though I was leaving just hours later for the East Coast, I couldn’t pass up a chance to listen to media critic and Nieman Foundation program manager Callie Crossley speak at Whitworth University Wednesday night.

Crossley’s talk focused on the intersection of old and new media, and she reminded us that “four years ago, YouTube didn’t exist.” Among other things, that means we have no real idea what the media will look like four years from now.

But it will look different: As Crossley also noted, 15,000 American journalists lost their jobs in 2008, while for many journalists working for “multi-platform media”–what most media have become: “The print paper has become the last on the list of priorities” behind a news organization’s Web sites and journalists’ blogs.

Today was the first day of a “Media Impact” study program I am leading in New York and Washington, D.C., and the students and I were provided some more excellent insights on the issue of journalistic change.

First we visited Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media watchdog organization. Program director Janine Jackson pointed out that the mainstream news organizations do a particularly weak job with institutional structures and policies not because of a liberal or conservative bias, but because of a “top-down bias”–far too many of journalists’ sources continue to be the people in power (mostly white males).

The journalist is then put in the position, though his/her questions, of speaking for everyone else who might be affected by an issue (an even bigger problem when most nationally recognized newspeople also are privileged white males). 

From FAIR we went to The Smoking Gun, a three-man operation that was one of the first prominent Internet news sites–and still one of few that actually does journalism, as opposed to simply commenting on the journalism of others. That means, for example, that on any given day you may find more original hard news dug up by three guys in a single New York office than is uncovered and reported during a day’s on-air MSNBC coverage.

The amount and quality of work they do led to their being bought by TruTV (then Court TV) just three years after they started The Smoking Gun, making them (in the words of editor Bill Bastone) “the smallest division of Time-Warner that you can imagine.”

Bastone,  managing editor Andrew Goldberg and reporter Joseph Jesselli all demonstrated why they are great reporters: They love their work, they have a wide range of interests, and they boast “kind of a punk sensibility”–meaning they enjoy tweaking the powerful.

I also was thrilled to hear Jackson and Bastone highlight issues that I have tried to emphasize in this blog (which I would be first to agree is NOT journalism).

Jackson stressed the importance of media history and media literacy, gained from exposing oneself to multiple media (especially written media) from a variety of sources. Bastone expressed frustration with the number of college students he meets who don’t read enough, and who don’t try every possible avenue to get their writing into print.

I couldn’t have said it better myself–which, of course, is why we’re in New York.

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3 Responses to “The Smoking Gun: FAIR criticism of media”

  1. Joy said

    I’m glad to hear that FAIR was a good stop. When I went on the trip our visit there was really disjointed and came off more as whiny than constructive. Also, I’m following the class’ blog but since only the users are authorized to comment, I guess I’ll just hold my feedback for when you all get back. It snowed for about 20 minutes here again, so you’re not missing anything.

  2. Joy said

    Oh, and I LOVED Crossley’s lecture last week. I went just because “Eyes on the Prize” was incredibly moving in my life, and then her speech was the cherry on top.

  3. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Joy. We had snow in NY yesterday, enough that there’s an inch or two remaining this morning. Most of us went to the Met; many managed to go on to both Brooklyn and Staten Island. Glad you’re following us on our trip. Monday is The Onion and Channel 13.

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