In the minds of journalists of a certain age are lodged hazy golden memories of a time when what we used to call "the press" (and we now call "the mainstream media") was the only way the public had of finding out what presidents were up to. This meant that there was a buffer institution preventing Americans from being subjected to raw, irresistible presidential propaganda and spin.

Boy, are those days over! The three broadcast television networks' evening news audiences have decreased steadily and dramatically. Many big newspapers are hurting, too, and as they have looked for places to cut their news staffs, their attention has often come to rest on their Washington bureaus. Washington coverage doesn't have the pinnacle status within journalism that it used to. I had the pleasing experience last summer, on a couple of occasions when I dropped in for a look at the presidential campaign, of encountering recent graduates of Columbia Journalism School covering the campaign for major news outlets. When I was starting my career, it took decades to get that assignment.

At the same time, because of the Internet, there has been a great proliferation of independent voices that comment on the news in competition or opposition to the mainstream media, and another great proliferation of voices emanating from political parties, campaigns and interest groups. President Obama won the 2008 election in part because his campaign organization was so good at developing a large, interactive network for direct communication with voters, and this network is still alive, well and constantly emailing the members of Obama's army.

Actually, though, the presence of a powerful new medium can mislead us into thinking the situation is entirely new. Presidents have always wanted to communicate directly with voters without having to go through any intermediaries.

Mark Hanna, the mastermind of William McKinley's two successful presidential campaigns, invented something not unlike political direct mail when he launched a vast operation that published pamphlets and sent them directly to voters. Franklin Roosevelt used radio addresses to talk to the country. Ronald Reagan used events staged so expertly that television would be unable to resist broadcasting. George W. Bush used the friendly conservative press. And so on.

Conversely, as declining as the mainstream media may sometimes seem to be, Obama, and before him Bush, has devoted a lot of attention to them. Last week Obama expended several hours of his scarcest resource, his time, to meet with two small groups of influential columnists, one liberal and one conservative. Bush pleaded personally, though unsuccessfully, with the top brass of The New York Times in 2005 to withhold its scoop about warrantless wiretapping.

Besides pure nostalgia, what drives the wistfulness for the heyday of the mainstream media is a fear that the presence of so much biased, unreliable competing information about public affairs is not good for the health of the republic. That fear—also not new; it was never more completely laid out than by political commentator Walter Lippmann, in Public Opinion, his 1922 book on media and democracy—presumes that Americans will have a hard time distinguishing news from "news."

Thus far that hasn't happened; the Internet is an excellent medium for instantaneously correcting misinformation, and, generally speaking, the most traffic goes to the better news sites. Washington, especially at the extraordinary moment of the ascension of President Obama, has got the attention of the nation and the world, so there are plenty of journalists covering it. (That's not the case, by the way, in state and city government.) As long as there are the means to produce first-rate and widely available Washington coverage, then that coverage doesn't also need to monopolize our attention in order to fulfill its mission.

 

Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism and the Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism.

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