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A Few Notes on the Media

Let me try and tie a couple of things together here.

1. It has been widely claimed that 32 absentee ballots from Minnesota were left in the trunk of a Hennepin County election official’s car before being “discovered” some days later. However, as Media Matters and other new media organizations have reported, the authenticity of the claim is — at best — debatable, and may have originated from one of Norm Coleman’s lawyers. (As you can see for yourself, I share in the blame on this one).

2. I spent a good amount of my Saturday watching the Frontline special on Lee Atwater, which — while painting a very humanizing portrait of the “Boogie Man” — left little doubt about how credulous the mainstream media can be in the face claims made by a skilled (but manifestly deceitful) operative like Mr. Atwater.

3. The New York Times reports that CBS executives were attempting to placate Republican critics with their investigation into Dan Rather’s reporting of the Killian documents, which alleged that George W. Bush received preferential treatment while in the Air National Guard. (The Killian documents were rapidly and — to my mind — somewhat convincingly challenged by conservative blogs.)

It is, from my vantage point, utterly hypocritical that CBS apparently encouraged Dan Rather to resign his anchorship after the Killian report, when the broadcasting of such claims speaks to far more widespread dysfunction within that news organization. (Nor is it any accident that, when Mr. Rather left CBS, a cavalcade of talented personnel — ranging from acclaimed producers to cameramen — left along with him.) That CBS officials may have succumbed to Republican pressure is completely unsurprising; unsurprising that Republicans applied such pressure (Democrats would have done the same), but equally unsurprising that such a mainstream media institution lacked the backbone to admit to an honest mistake and own up to it.

CBS’s underlying problem — and the commonality between the three items that I described above — is the arbitrary and largely ineffectual nature of the fact-checking process employed by the mainstream media. I have written for perhaps a dozen major publications over the span of my career, and the one with the most thorough fact-checking process is by some margin Sports Illustrated. Although this is an indication of the respect with which SI accords its brand, it does not speak so well of the mainstream political media that you are more likely to see an unverified claim repeated on the evening news than you are to see in the pages of your favorite sports periodical.

One of the questions triggered by the Frontline program is what would have happened if Atwater were still alive today; might he have had more success in undermining Barack Obama than Steve Schmidt apparently did? My answer is very probably not, because the blogosphere serves as the fact-checkers that the mainstream media is too negligent to employ. On the contrary, I think that Mr. Atwater would have been smart enough to realize that he’d be eaten alive by Daily Kos and Media Matters and Keith Olbermann, and would be thoroughly enjoying himself in retirement playing in a blues band in South Carolina somewhere.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.