Giving the Media Their Due

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The litigated electoral overtime of 2000 has, perhaps, one silver lining. Despite a quantity of partisan writing, foolish commentary and overall captious bushwah, this episode has represented an overall quantum leap in the development of the techniques, the intellectual seriousness and the educational potential of American journalism.

This has been a complex and potentially dangerous story. It has represented at least a speculative threat to the mechanism by which America transfers power from one administration to the next. It seems to me that the American media — that hated tribe — have risen to the occasion. They have gone to the historians and legal scholars, to the voters on either side, to the partisans and pollsters, and in the thoroughness of their reporting, have themselves made a civic contribution. They have encouraged what is, in the best of times, the best of American virtues: fairness.

There have been outrageous exceptions, examples of shallow, stupid work. But the importance of 2000 in journalistic history, I think, is the maturing of a dynamic. As citizens, we now have at our disposal a variety of information sources, and therefore a diversity of points of view and a depth of knowledge, never available before: The combinations of 27-hour, seven-day-a-week cable TV news-and-commentary, of the miraculous Internet (that vast new auxiliary brain), along with our magazines and newspapers in both their electronic and printed forms — all these converge to be weighed in millions of individual minds.

The Heisenberg principle (the observation of an event alters the event itself) went into effect years ago in American history. It is a truism, for example, that the journalistic presence there (especially television cameras) determined the outcome of the Vietnam war. And the principle has only become more powerful as the years have passed. Journalism is not only "the first rough draft of history," as the Washington Post's Philip Graham said years ago. Journalism is an active, distorting and sometimes determining presence in the history. During the '90s (absent a big war or other major historical grimness), journalism has been developing its more sensational entertainment side, practicing its techniques in circuses like the O. J. Simpson trial, Diana's death, and the Elian Gonzalez case.

But it seems to me that big mainstream journalism has come of age in the 2000 postelection — or at least passed an interesting milestone. As I said, the advantage here lies more in the cumulative rather than in the individual performances: Even though there have been distinguished individual performances, what matters is the overall effect as presented to the individual consumer of history and journalism. The great hive labors; thousands of bees fly off in all directions to collect their pollen (data, quotes) and bring it back to the headquarters, where an alchemy occurs, and you get, if not honey, at least some measure of knowledge and understanding. You cannot run a democracy as complicated and diverse (and, by the way, well armed) as this one without either 1) skillful demagoguery and occasional big-time bloodshed, or 2) the forms of national discourse available in the new republic of information.

I've always believed that it is a good idea to indulge from time to time in a homeopathic loathing of journalists, just to keep them honest and your own immunities in shape. (And I speak as one of the loathed tribe when I say that). But you always hate the ones you need.