Tony Snow Slams Media in Freedom of Speech Award Address

Although you likely didn't hear about it, former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow received a Freedom of Speech Award on October 16 from The Media Institute.

During his acceptance, Snow made some statements about liberal bias in the press, as well as the condition of the media industry, which fully explain why this event, as well as his address, went virtually unreported.

Thankfully, Glenn Reynolds found this spectacular speech for your review. Unfortunately, the text was posted as a PDF file that cannot be cut-and-pasted.

*****Update: Thanks to Free Republic, I can now include some of the highlights from this marvelous address (emphasis added throughout, h/t NBer stratman):

The First Amendment, as others have noted, serves as the foundation for the enterprise, and supports reporters in their quest for truth .- or at least for serviceable facts that in time might lead them toward some reasonable facsimile of truth.

We also hear that the First Amendment is under siege. I think that´s true. I don´t believe anyone here would disagree with the proposition that the quality of public discourse isn´t what it once was or that it presently achieves levels of excellence and depth that it desperately needs to reach.

Yet, while it may be tempting to blame the usual suspects — the government, interest groups, angry factionalists — those forces frequently have always tried to restrict the free flow of ideas, and they always have failed.

They´re not the culprits here. Instead, there´s a new and unexpected menace on the block:

The media.

No question! But there's more:

Political rhetoric has turned nasty, childish, and very personal, especially on Capitol Hill, and Americans are sick of it. Hotheads seem to be enjoying a false spring of fame. And members of the mainstream press are scratching their heads and asking, “What´s going on here?” Why are the nation´s newspapers hemorrhaging readers? Why are the television networks losing viewers? Why has cable news suddenly hit still water? What is going on? Don´t Americans care about the news?

Well, of course they do: The problem is, they don´t think they´re getting news — and they´re right.

[...]

Reporters and editors for three decades have sneered at accusations of bias, as if the claim were novel — it is not — unthinkable — it is not — or false — which it also is not.

The major media organs in this country have become purveyors of conventional wisdom— generally, conventional liberal wisdom.

The Roper Organization conducted a poll after the 1992 election and discovered that 93 percent of Washington political reporters voted for Bill Clinton. Only 2 percent identified themselves as “conservative.”

Subsequent surveys have indicated a similar spread in party affiliation, which makes the Washington Press Corps the most reliable Democratic voting bloc in the nation.

This is not a smear or a criticism. It is a fact, and it´s worth examining. My theory is that liberal — Democratic — sympathies flourish among reporters for very practical reasons. Democrats ran every major institution in Washington for 62 years — between 1932 and 1994. That´s the longest string of effective one-party rule in the history of democracy. Reporters knew that to get news, they needed to cultivate the people who made the news — who shaped legislation, who passed the laws, who peopled government departments and agencies — in other words, the people who really pull the levers in Washington. They needed to know elected officials, staffers, bureaucratic gnomes — the vast bulk of whom were Democrats.

Fascinating, wouldn't you agree? But there's more:

And what about conventional wisdom? For months, the media avoided asking about progress in Iraq. Despite repeated reports from the field that Iraqis had turned against al Qaeda, the news seldom made it into newspapers, and almost never on front pages. Last week, the military reported that civilian deaths in Iraq had hit their lowest point since 2003. U.S. and Iraqi deaths and casualties similarly had declined. So what led the paper the next morning? Stories about Blackwater. The statistics that put the war in perspective were relegated to the back pages of the Washington Post and in some publications, to oblivion.

A vigorous press must be one in which reporters challenge their own sympathies and assumptions as aggressively as they challenge the sympathies and assumptions of others. Unfortunately, that too seldom happens, with the consequence that opinion-mongering has driven out straight news.

[...]

Reporters nevertheless find themselves under constant pressure to accumulate and disgorge factoids, so they can be the first to recite them on camera, publish them online — and, of course, leak to Drudge.

Conflict stories provide a second source of low-hanging fatal fruit. Example: Harry Reid calls the president a liar. Reporters get word of the insult on their blackberries. They demand an immediate response from the White House press secretary.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. It happens all the time. I have stood at the White House podium, watching reporters unholstering their blackberries and looking at urgent communications from the home office. Within moments, the questions come like hurled fruit:

Everyone wants to know about some utterance or event that took place or were reported after the briefing itself began — things about which I knew nothing, including the larger context. The point of such questions isn´t to get content and context right: It´s to play gotcha— to make public officials respond to insults and insinuations rather than ideas and facts.

Exactly. As a result, what we are routinely offered isn't news. Not even close. But that's what today's journalists strive for:

In short, media organizations have been seduced by process, conflict and polling stories, and along the way have sacrificed the tradition of looking for creative ways to understand and explain the world. They have become hostages to the easy and shallow stuff and strangers to stories that touch people´s hearts and characterize their actual lives.

Indeed, journalists seem to have developed an elitist contempt for the daily concerns of viewers, listeners and readers — and the public has noticed. This explains the across-the-board slippage in newspaper circulation, and viewership of broadcast and cable news.

[...]

I´ve raced through a lot of issues here, but you get the point: The media have embraced practices and policies that actually erode First Amendment freedoms and weaken the practice of journalism itself.

As folks that are familiar with Tony Snow are aware, he always sees things from an optimistic perspective. As such, his marvelous conclusion will not surprise his fans:

The democratic media provide new tools for examining our world, new competitors for reporting about that world, and new reminders to the press establishment that markets really do work — and people want better than they´re getting.

I come not to bury journalism, but to celebrate and challenge it. It´s a cliché that every crisis presents an opportunity, but it´s true: The democratization of the media is a good thing. We now face competition from all quarters — including from people who have specialized expertise that journalists lack. We ought to welcome the new participants in the game and learn from them. They should do the same with us.

There´s an old boast in the business — that the job of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The thing is, we never realized that we were becoming The Comfortable — with good pay, job security, and access to movers and shakers all around the world. We need to cast off our coziness — venture away from safe stories and presumptions and into the wilderness of new topics, new ideas and new sources of information.

In that quest lies the possibility of fulfillment and joy — and the hope of keeping alive the text and the spirit of the First Amendment.

Bravo, Tony! There's a reason why you are one of the most respected journalists on the planet, and we at NewsBusters sincerely thank you for your insights while wishing you well in your future endeavors.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.