When Tim Russert died suddenly on June 13, it was, for the political press (to draw an analogy to his beloved Buffalo Bills), like losing a star quarterback before halftime of the Super Bowl. It's hard to imagine a campaign season without Russert's Meet the Press inquisitions or an election night without his whiteboard.
But his loss also came just as journalists are feeling besieged. Their bosses are slashing staffs, their advertisers are drifting away, and their prerogatives are being challenged by bloggers and YouTubers: a diffuse army of the uncredentialed, uninhibited and--most terrifyingly--unpaid. In Russert, the press lost its most authoritative mass-market journalist, just as it is losing its authority and its mass market.
It's too simple to say that the new media are killing off the old media. Interest in political news is sky-high, and new and old media each need the other to supply material and drive attention. What's happening instead is a kind of melding of roles. Old and new media are still symbiotic, but it's getting hard to tell who's the rhino and who's the tickbird.
In their original division of labor, the old media broke news while the blogs dispensed opinion. But look at two of the biggest stories of the Democratic primary: Barack Obama's comments that working-class voters are "bitter" and Bill Clinton's rope-line rant that a reporter who profiled him was a "scumbag." Both were broken by a volunteer for the Huffington Post website, Mayhill Fowler.
Traditional reporters were aghast at Fowler's methods--the Obama meeting was closed to press (she got in as a donor), and Fowler did not identify herself when speaking to Clinton. But mainstream media had no problem treating the scoops as big news; if she had overheard both quotes in the same way but told them to a newspaper instead of publishing them, that would have been considered a coup.
The case against Fowler, in other words, was about process and credentials, not content. If sources stop trusting us, reporters asked, how will we do our jobs? But however sneaky her methods, Fowler's stories prove that one reason sites like Huffington have an audience is the perception that Establishment journalism has gotten better at serving its powerful sources than its public. Fiascoes like the Iraq-WMD reporting gave many the impression that the old rules mainly protect consultant-cosseted public officials who need protection least.
In other ways, the boundary between new and old media has become porous. Hillary Clinton's controversial reference to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination came in an interview with a newspaper, but it was made news not by the traveling press but by viewers watching the live webcast. The distinctions have become more academic: if 3 million people read Drudge and 65,000 read the New Republic, which is mainstream? And the campaigns have noticed. When the Obama camp sought to debunk online rumors (e.g., that he was not a U.S. citizen by birth), it started its own website and sent Obama's birth certificate to dailykos.com The campaign is too savvy to believe that people take the press as the sole arbiter of truth anymore.
And the old media, under pressure to work fast, sharpen their voices and cut costs, are increasingly making news blog-style, through argument and controversy. Certainly, the mainstream press is still the chief source of straight news. But that hasn't had nearly as much impact as the punditry (analysts burying Clinton before New Hampshire), glib remarks (Fox News calling Michelle Obama Barack's "baby mama") and opinion (Keith Olbermann's tirades against Clinton). The debates drew millions of viewers and reaffirmed TV's reach. But can you remember any substantive questions from them as much as the back-and-forth about "likability"?
Oh, wait: there was one debate question that sparked an ongoing policy discussion (on Obama's willingness to meet with hostile foreign leaders). It was asked at a CNN debate. By a YouTube user.
Russert was one of the last giants of old-school journalism. But it was telling that when he showed his outsize influence one last time in this campaign, it was not through an interview but through punditry--when he declared the Democratic race over the night of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.
It's hard to imagine a future Russert with that kind of singular authority, as the power to set the news agenda moves from insiders to outsiders. But with that change, maybe we'll also stop arbitrarily dividing "real" from "amateur" journalists and simply distinguish good reporting from bad, informed opinion from hot air, information from stenography. Maybe we'll remember this election as the one when we stopped talking about "the old media" and "the new media" and, simply, met the press.