Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Media Death Wish

CBS is canceling the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes," insisting the decision was made because of poor ratings and not Dan Rather's fraudulent story about President Bush's military service. CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said: "This was a ratings call, not a content call."

The CBS content/ratings distinction carries more than a wiff of the disingenuous given the plunge in CBS News Neilsen ratings following the Rathergate fiasco, as reported on DRUDGE on September 16, 2004:

CBS executives on both coasts have become concerned in recent days that Dan Rather's EVENING NEWS broadcast has plunged in the ratings since the anchor presented questionable documents about Bush's National Guard service.

NIELSEN numbers released this week show Rather fading and trailing his rivals in every Top 10 city, other than San Francisco, with audience margins in some cities running more than 6 to 1 against CBS!

Executives fear many voters inclined to vote for Bush are now switching off Rather.

"The audience appears to becoming polarized," a top CBS source said from LOS ANGELES on Thursday. "Rightly or wrongly, we're being perceived as 'anti-Bush,' which I do not think is fair to Dan, who is a fine journalist... of course we do not like to see the ratings coming back the way they are this week."

In Philadelphia, the nation's #4 market, Rather pulled a 2.6 rating/5 share on Tuesday night against ABC's 13.3 rating/23 share and NBC's 4.0/7.

In Chicago, Rather hit a 2.3/5 to ABC's 9.2/20.

CBS trailed ABC by more than 2 to 1 in Los Angeles.

And in the nation's top market, New York, Rather finished not only behind NBC NIGHTLY NEWS and ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT -- but also pulled less audience than reruns of the SIMPSONS, WILL & GRACE and KING OF QUEENS.

Rather finished dead last in New York during the 6:30 pm timeslot among all broadcast channels tracked by NIELSEN on Tuesday.


Well, the story seems to have "developed" into permanently low ratings for Rather's remaining vehicle, "60 Minutes, Wednesday" - and now its cancellation "for low ratings." Yes, a CBS-appointed investigative panel had concluded that documents used in the Rathergate story "could not be verified" (i.e., were presumptively fraudulent) and that the CBS operatives had been hilariously willful and negligent in their handling of the materials, but Moonves said that the panel findings didn't figure in the decision to cancel 60 Minutes, Wednesday. "Not even slightly," he said. But he didn't say: not even indirectly.

Notwithstanding the increasingly obvious link between the declining trustworthiness of the mainstream media and its declining audience, many mainstream media seem determined to immolate themselves in honor of the likes of Newsweek and CBS News. The Los Angeles Times, a particularly odd case in point, yesterday issued an amazing editorial that led with this:

According to chaos theory, the flapping of a single butterfly's wings can trigger a hurricane halfway across the globe, a phenomenon known as the "butterfly effect." Now the Bush administration thinks it has detected something that might be called the "Newsweek effect." It says the magazine's publication of an item in its May 9 issue, alleging that U.S. guards flushed the Koran down a toilet in order to humiliate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, was a cause of riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan last week that left at least 14 people dead. We'll leave it to the scientists and philosophers to debate the finer points of chaos theory. What we can say here is that the "Newsweek effect" is exaggerated.

See - the Los Angeles Times explains that the connection of all that rioting to the Newsweek article is just so much White House manipulation and hooey, which will presumably come as a surprise to Newsweek, which is running this story:
May 23 issue - By the end of the week, the rioting had spread from Afghanistan throughout much of the Muslim world, from Gaza to Indonesia. Mobs shouting "Protect our Holy Book!" burned down government buildings and ransacked the offices of relief organizations in several Afghan provinces. The violence cost at least 15 lives, injured scores of people and sent a shudder through Washington, where officials worried about the stability of moderate regimes in the region. The spark was apparently lit at a press conference held on Friday, May 6, by Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket legend and strident critic of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Brandishing a copy of that week's NEWSWEEK (dated May 9), Khan read a report that U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo prison had placed the Qur'an on toilet seats and even flushed one.
The Los Angeles Times approach will also likely surprise the Washington Post, which ran a story on May 11 asserting that the riots were triggered by "a report that interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba" and to the New York Times, which ran a story on May 12 stating that the "demonstrations were started on Tuesday by students angered by a report in Newsweek that American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention center had desecrated the Koran by flushing a copy down the toilet." And, of course, the The Los Angeles Times dismissal will also likely surprise the radical clerics and extremist political agitators who have been busy inciting the riots by citing Newsweek, as well as to the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan - which have also attributed the rioting to Newsweek and want the magazine held liable for the damages caused.

Not content to deny the causative nexus that even Newsweek and its sister publication, the Washington Post, now see clearly, the Los Angeles Times claims that, for that paper, "The more interesting question may not be how Newsweek goofed, but why the Muslim world is so ready to believe the story." So the Los Angeles Times sees clearly that the "Muslim world" did read and believe the Newsweek report - and did riot - but concludes that the causal connection between the two was no more than that arising from the beating of a butterfly wing.

But wait! There's more! The same Los Angeles Times editorial not only denies any significant causal connection between the Newsweek article and the subsequent rioting, but goes on to suggest that the journalism standards Newsweek employed in running the article are the same as those used throughout the mainstream media - including at the Los Angeles Times: "[T]he use of anonymous sources, on which the Newsweek article relied, raises questions of motivation and credibility that news organizations (including this one) ignore at their peril." The Times editorial does not actually disclose how often the Times ignores those "questions of motivation and credibility" - but neither does the editorial part ways with the amazing and now-infamous assertion by Michael Isikoff, one of two reporters who perpetrated the Newsweek story, that "There was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here." The Los Angeles Times seems to agree.

The Times editorial may be compared to the take at the Wall Street Journal, which terms the original Newsweek article a "thinly sourced allegation":
Less reassuring, however, is [Newsweek's]contention that the story is a routine error."There was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here," said Michael Isikoff, who was one of two reporters behind the story. Certainly we all make mistakes. But if printing such an explosive allegation based on the memory of what a single, anonymous source claims he read is standard Newsweek procedure--no documents were even produced--its readers must wonder about the rest of its content too. The more consequential question here, it seems to us, is why Newsweek was so ready to believe the story was true. .... We have all been reading a great deal lately about both the decline of media credibility, and the decline of both TV news viewership and newspaper circulation. Any other industry looking at such trends would conclude that perhaps there is a connection.

As the post-Rathergate CBS News viewership numbers and today's cancellation of 60 Minutes, Wednesday indicate, the connection the Journal perceives is very strong. And the Los Angeles Times itself seems to be leading the way into the oblivion of precipitously declining circulation, with a loss of almost 13% in six months - a rate that if continued in one year would cause the Times lose over 25% of its fully or partially paid subscribers. And it is perhaps no coincidence that Michael Kinsley - the man behind the bizarre Los Angeles Times editorial described above - seems utterly clueless as to what is causing the implosion. Indeed, in a recent column Mr. Kinsley actually addressed declining newspaper circulation, offering up this causal nexus (I am not making this up):
Some evil force is causing people to stop reading newspapers! Newspaper circulation figures, which had been drifting decorously downward for years, have started to plummet.

Yes, and that "evil force" is the fact that people don't believe the information provided by the mainstream media very much, Mr. Kinsley. And that's probably largely because of the crummy journalistic standards and out-of-touch, tendentious reporting that now plagues so much of your industry.

Enjoy the "plummeting" ride down!

UPDATE: Maguire completely nails the Newsweek/riots causality connection denied by the Los Angeles Times editorial. After reading his posts, it's hard to see why deniers of this causality should not be classed with other loony deniers of important historically-obvious facts (perhaps former members of O.J. Simpson's criminal jury are now part of the LA Times ediorial board). Essentially, the only argument left to the deniers seems to be to ask their opponents in one form or another a question equivalent to: "Why do you have such absolute certainty about this causation?" Of course, there is no absolute certainty in real life about almost anything - and no media outlet, including Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times ever avails itself of that standard, except when they are absolutely determined not to connect the causation dots.

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