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How Media Outlets Work in Cutthroat Washington, D.C.

How do the media actually operate in Washington, D.C.? What are their motivations and limitations? For starters, most (though certainly not all) media companies are for-profit enterprises, and as classifieds and subscription revenues are drying up, advertising is king.

At the same time, the Internet has eliminated some of the considerable costs that traditionally were associated with reporting politics in a meaningful way, increasing the range of sources available to people who want news and analysis. (The hometown paper and national syndicates aren’t the only options anymore.)

In practice, this means that media outlets face ever-increasing pressure to gain attention from more viewers and readers: The more eyeballs on the website or the more tablet app downloads, the better. The fastest way to attract attention in a sea of wire reports and nonstop talking heads is to break news. This fact has led to two emerging trends in the media landscape:

  • Political spin machines: Political public relations (PR) and rumor-mongering are nothing new, but they are increasingly reaching new levels of sophistication. From coordinated campaigns of talking heads armed with identical talking points, to faux grass-root movements (astroturfing), to “independent” third-party advertisers (who introduced swiftboating to the American political lexicon), political spin machines are designed to make news and, in the best cases, write journalists’ stories for them.

  • Citizen journalism: This term is a catchall for journalistic activities carried out by nonprofessionals. What it means is that in the era of camera-equipped smartphones in every pocket, no public figure can ever assume he or she is not being recorded. Not surprisingly, human behavior has not adapted quickly enough to 21st-century technologies, as an increasing number of gaffes and mini-scandals attest.

    Citizen journalism, made possible by the Internet, has not only increased the exposure public officials face on a daily basis, but it has also broken down the few remaining barriers imposed between the powerful and their constituents.

    Any hint of a scandal, which the media might once have sat on for ethical reasons (“We need to cross-check this”) or legal reasons (“We might get sued for this”), can now be leaked through innumerable amateur and semi-professional political blogs and websites.

Because the media now includes a vast concatenation of bloggers, Tweeters, YouTube posters, and Facebook members, the vast majority of whom have no journalistic training, it has become nearly impossible to determine which stories are accurate (meaning they’ve been multiply sourced and confirmed by journalists trained in the profession) and which are rumors or deliberate falsehoods initiated by amateurs with an axe to grind.

And because, as Mark Twain allegedly said, “A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on,” the public’s confidence in the journalistic trade has seriously eroded.

However, politicians are not always helpless victims in this fully exposed, barrier-free world. In fact, they are often willing participants, boasting on their Facebook pages and tweeting as if it were the neatest thing since party lines.

This latest form of political ridiculousness has, in a few short years, expanded our lexicon (thank Sarah Palin for inventing the term refudiate) and given the world another reason never to go into the congressional gym (thanks to former Representative Anthony Weiner).

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