There has always been tension between the press and elected officials. There has always been a healthy distrust of both by the electorate.
The electorate in turn has always been divided on key issues. If they weren't, we'd have consensus on everything and we'd have no need for government decision makers. Government would merely be administrators of the thing we all uniformly agreed on.
Wouldn't that be handy? Wouldn't that be boring?
With the zeal of sports fans, people have gravitated to one of our two political parties. The political parties, in turn, have a need for market share. They way that they get market share is to manipulate the media. It doesn't matter which party you happen to cheer for, they both do this. Simply because you might feel the other one is more successful is immaterial.
The media, on the other hand, is also vying for market share. For a very long time, Media meant newspapers. Then it meant newspapers and magazines. Then it meant newspapers, magazines and radio. Then it meant newspapers, magazines, radio and television (3 networks). But even at this time, journalism tried to cover stories with a degree of impartiality. And even at this time journalism was working with a small field to cover a lot of consumers.
Now we are living in an age where local newspapers are hanging on by a thread, there are hundreds of television station - many with stated political agendas - blogs, political pundit programming, and so on. The market for news now is so fragmented that reporters thrive purely on sensationalism for their survival.
Introduce into this mix the post-Clinton era. No one wants to suffer what the Clintons had to. So it makes perfect sense that the first post-Clinton president would adopt a strategy of starving the press for information.
The press, already on shaky ground due to their fragmented market, could not help but beg for news gruel and report whatever they were spooned out. This satisfied no one. Those who relied on impartial news could see through the soundbites. Those who wanted a liberal slant were horrified by the obvious lack of coverage and turned to the news sources that directly went for their market. Those who wanted a republican slant could turn to their market. Those who wanted a conservative slant could turn to the source for their market.
Rapidly, journalism went catatonic. Most news sources adopted definite biases and reporters were hired purely because of their demonstrated biases. This is perfect for both political parties. They are now entirely beyond worrying about campaign finance reform. They have huge industries devoted to disseminating their information.
So, when old school journalists like Howard Crook note their concern over Judith Miller's incarceration for doing her job, it's a bit late for that. Judith, and earlier Newsweek's apology for telling the truth about Gitmo, are the first bits of surface evidence of an existing cancer.
Kids today are dismissive of spin, saying that they can spot it and it doesn't bother them. And the elders are shocked but secretly relieved. Maybe this means that we don't have to solve the problem.
But that's not quite right. We can all spot the spin. If we couldn't we wouldn't be discussing it. The question is ... do we want to be governed by people who find it necessary to spin things in the first place? Do we want our first reaction to information provided by our elected officials to be skepticism? And do we want to immediately assume that the press is split down the middle, each side in lock-step camps with our Coke & Pepsi leadership?
Since people understand that their leaders are lying to them and that the press is increasingly unwilling to point these lies out, we are becoming increasingly less sure what to believe. We are looking to new things to find truth: blogs, wikis, whatever. But not demanding that our leadership simply tell the truth.
As we become less sure of what to believe, we lose self-confidence. And as people lose self-confidence they tend to look for outside sources to believe in. Paradoxically, but historically, this often ends up being the same movements that initially destroyed our self-confidence.
Moderates become extremists because they have no alternatives. As they do so, they adopt the ways of the extremists, at least temporarily. In this case, this might be as seemingly benign as canceling one magazine subscription and picking up another. But each action like that has repercussions throughout the media.
Judith Miller is not just a victim of the government. She is a victim of the media's bad business planning. She is a victim of having to sell soap. She is a victim of the fragmentation of one market and the solidification of another.