The Authority Question

As the Charles Stimson controversy shows, the media establishment still speaks with authority.

Does anyone in the media still speak with authority? Does authority even matter any more? By "authority" I mean the prestige, clout, and trustworthiness of the big brand-name newspapers, magazines, and TV networks. Remember, back in the 20th century?

As traditional new outlets wither, authority has begun to seem outmoded and quaint, like milkmen and VHS recorders. Then along comes Charles (Cully) Stimson to remind us what it was all about. Stimson, you'll recall, is the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for detainee affairs who took to trashing the private-sector lawyers who have been representing Guantanamo detainees, mostly on a pro bono basis. He named some of their firms and suggested it might just be time for corporate America (i.e., the firms' biggest clients) to make them "choose between representing terrorists" and "representing reputable firms." It was a transparent, thuggish threat.

This was one of those Washington-run-amok moments that used to bring out the best in the elite news outlets. An administration official would do something stupid or dangerous, and the media establishment would roll out the heavy artillery. The news stories would come fast and furious, followed by bruising editorials. Inept and corrupt public officials lived in fear of this kind of authority. See under "Nixon, Richard Milhous."

Authority may be ailing, but it's not dead yet. Stimson made his comments in an interview on Federal News Radio in Washington on January 11. The next morning, the editorial page of The Washington Post called the remarks "repellent." News stories and editorials followed in the major outlets. Other administration officials began to turn on Stimson. On January 17, Stimson apologized.

One of the best editorials I read was USA Today's, headlined "An Appalling Threat," which applied the word "sleazy" to Stimson's comments. Over the years, USA Today has shed the old "McPaper" rap and acquired a reputation for straight-ahead journalism and centrist, no-nonsense positions on public issues. And when it speaks up in deadly serious tones, as in this case, it is leveraging that authority.

Online media boosters often speak of establishment authority as a vestige of the media Dark Ages. The people have stormed the castle! They're speaking out in their own voices rather than through those arrogant go-betweens, the newspapers and TV networks.

All of those voices are terrific. But if free expression is a natural human craving, so is authority. When the world is as lost as it seems to be right now, you want to know whom you can trust. After reading the USA Today editorial in hard copy, I went online looking for similar heft in the New Media. I searched "Stimson" and "Guantanamo" in Google News, and the first thing that came up was a Yahoo! headline: "An Appalling Threat." Coincidence? Nah, it was the USA Today piece repackaged for Yahoo—a reminder that, for all of their triumphalism, the largest new purveyors of news are still utterly dependent on the skills, content, and reputations of the old outlets.

Another hit took me to a Huffington Post piece by Jayne Lyn Stahl, described in her bio as "a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and essayist; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA."

The Huffington Post is an influential blog with a large following—by blog standards, it's near the top of the heap. But as brands go, it doesn't yet have the track record to speak with authority. And while Jayne Lyn Stahl may be a brilliant poet and playwright, I've never heard of her and wasn't ready to trust her. She began: "While the president is busy poll dancing, a senior member of his beloved Pentagon has surfaced with some stunning comments about boycotting law firms who represent prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay."

"Poll dancing"? "Beloved Pentagon"? There was something inapt and tone-deaf about both phrases. I read the rest of the piece restlessly, wondering why I was there in the first place.

It's a bit unfair to single out one blogger and ask her to match the authority of national newspapers. It would be marvelous if every voice in the new agora could have equal sway. Maybe in some future online utopia they will.