Writers take aim at news outlets

Amid the emotions surrounding the writers strike has been vitriol from some scribes toward any news outlet failing to echo their position — a “blame the messenger” attitude vented at coverage by Variety, among others.

Scanning message boards and blogs uncovers all manner of allegations about kowtowing to corporate interests. The assumption is that those not fully following the Writers Guild’s script must be bowing to pressure from their ownership or currying favor among advertisers, with journalists lacking the spine to bite the hands that feed us.

In this way, strike rhetoric is oddly mirroring modern politics, where partisans now filter straight-ahead reporting through an “us vs. them” prism, seeking out accounts that buttress their views while shunning those that might challenge them.

This represents a relatively recent dynamic, fueled by the Rush Limbaugh era of talkradio, cable news and the Internet, which barely existed during the last strike in 1988. It’s an especially poisonous environment when applied to this fracas, since talent and the studios must eventually reunite once the saber-rattling and marching ends, whereas political combatants (or at least their public mouthpieces) are now locked in a state of perpetual warfare, the better to spice up the give and take on “Hannity & Colmes.”

The fallout from this in politics is the tendency to dismiss anything contrary to one’s ideology as being tainted at the source. On the right, the familiar cry is the “liberal media.” The left has countered by deriding the “corporate media” — a charge that quickly crept into the writers’ rants.

Of course, those who refuse to entertain competing viewpoints can hermetically seal themselves in bubbles more easily than ever. Unfortunately, the air inside those cocoons soon becomes pretty noxious, which is fine if you’re spoiling for a fight instead of fishing for solutions.

In political extremes both sides eagerly play the victim, with conservative talk hosts and liberal bloggers self-servingly encouraging hostility toward “mainstream” media while promising — in the same way some websites are pandering to disgruntled writers — the real story the corrupt old traditional media won’t provide.

At the risk of sounding defensive, then, it’s time for a reality check before writers’ collective persecution complex shifts into overdrive: Just as reporters are generally permissive on social issues (a common conservative harangue, rejecting the possibility of setting aside personal opinion to report objectively), print journalists’ natural impulse is to side with writers, inasmuch as we earn our living bent over keyboards too.

That mentality, however, doesn’t oblige reporters to choose sides or reassure guild members with only that which they want to hear, any more than it eradicates the conglomerates’ aim to pay talent not what’s fair but what they have to. Nor is it shilling for “big media” to say these companies are vast, diversified and (here’s the key part) privately scared witless that new technology will gum up the works of their cash machines — a process witnessed first-hand by those in the recording and newspaper industries.

Based on those factors — as well as Hollywood labor history, where post-strike deals seldom mollify anyone — the notion that the studios will suddenly crumble to restore harmony is the sort of magical thinking normally reserved for stage versions of Peter Pan.

Notably, “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof touched upon several of these points in a New York Times op-ed Sunday that bolstered the studios’ case as much as the guild’s. In it, he referenced fears that the traditional TV model is “dying” and experiencing a transformation that’s “nothing short of terrifying” — concerns this season’s tepid TV ratings have surely reinforced.

Given that uncertainty, both sides are in a sense negotiating from a position of weakness. It’s just that the conglomerates are loath to publicly acknowledge their vulnerability, lest they send stockholders scrambling to more stable investments.

This “All is well” bravado from studios since the writers walked has made execs look callously indifferent to the strike’s collateral damage. The guild, by contrast, effectively started stressing middle-class writers’ plight but has overreached with misguided flourishes like Jesse Jackson’s opportunistic appearance at last week’s Fox rally, couching what’s fundamentally a financial clash in civil-rights vernacular.

In such distressing times, the cathartic urge to lash out is understandable. With thanks to Aaron Sorkin, though (but sorry, no residuals), shooting the messenger isn’t a sign of toughness, but merely a tip-off that you can’t handle the truth.

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