A Smart Analysis on the State of News Media

Richard Posner, being the inhumanely prolific writer he is, also had a thorough and smart analysis of the state of the news media in today’s NYT Book Review. It is required reading for anyone looking to figure out the “why” and “so what” when it comes to the dizzying array of news media options; claims of increasing polarization in news media; the effects of blogs (one of the most sensible approaches on blogs I’ve read); and why moans that we’ve hit rock bottom may not apply to the sliver of the intelligentsia who deliberate on public issues. Excerpts:

The argument that competition increases polarization assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones. Natural as that assumption is, it conflicts with one of the points on which left and right agree – that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don’t like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They’re also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.

So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives – hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ”a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.”

Thus the increase in competition in the news market that has been brought about by lower costs of communication (in the broadest sense) has resulted in more variety, more polarization, more sensationalism, more healthy skepticism and, in sum, a better matching of supply to demand. But increased competition has not produced a public more oriented toward public issues, more motivated and competent to engage in genuine self-government, because these are not the goods that most people are seeking from the news media. They are seeking entertainment, confirmation, reinforcement, emotional satisfaction; and what consumers want, a competitive market supplies, no more, no less. Journalists express dismay that bottom-line pressures are reducing the quality of news coverage. What this actually means is that when competition is intense, providers of a service are forced to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want, or more bluntly, what they want.

Yet what of the sliver of the public that does have a serious interest in policy issues? Are these people less well served than in the old days? Another recent survey by the Pew Research Center finds that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, including that bane of the right, National Public Radio, are attracting ever larger audiences. And for that sliver of a sliver that invites challenges to its biases by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that watches CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between, the increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before.

5 Responses to A Smart Analysis on the State of News Media

  1. Dan Saper says:

    Someone begs to differ…

    Not sure if you’ve seen it, but Posner gets rejected worse than Mugsy Bogues trying to lay in a finger roll over Hakeem Olajuwon. It’s an article in Slate (see URL above).

    I read Becker & Posner’s blog all the time and, like yourself, I’m a big fan, but I thought you would appreciate the criticism.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Let me first say that I’m not a huge Shafer fan – I do think he has astute observations sometimes, but usually I find his essays as rants. He particularly angered the blogger community when he completely misrepresented a blogger conference he was at simply to be the skeptic when everyone was going nuts over the blogging phenom. I’m all for skeptics, but not when their only goal is to be that skeptic.

    A lot of Shafer’s criticisms of Posner’s article are around wanting specific citations, baseline data, etc. In many cases Shafer doesn’t outright disagree, he just wants specifics and since he doesn’t have specifics he can call Posner lazy. I’m inclined to trust Posner – I don’t need tons of historical references to be convinced on some fundamental points about trust in media, the role of newspapers, the effects of blogs. I’m probably letting Posner off the hook too easy. I don’t disagree with Shafer that one way the guy is so prolific is he perhaps skims the surface on things, but I suspect that what pissed Shafer off deep down is that Posner – a legal scholar with really no background in media criticism – can in short order pull off an analysis that largely gets it right, in my view, while Shafer is a guy who’s life is all about this stuff and he is forced to defend and critique. Surely it’s not as deep as Shafer would like to see (and Posner did seem to get some basic facts wrong), but he’s a specialist, not the general public. And assuming it was Shafer who provided the link at the bottom of the article to the “prolific bastard” – Posner’s debate with a Princeton scholar on animal ethics, there’s another example: Posner puts up a good fight, and maybe wins, on a topic about which he has no formal background yet his “opponent” was someone who has devoted his life to the area. He has mastered the art of the generalist intellectual, and this pisses off specialists who are supposed to be the experts.

  3. Jesse says:

    OK, I knew you’d love it. But I thought it was a really shallow piece, especially his lazy acceptance of the whole “liberal media” BS, and his citation of the Bernard Goldberg book Bias as a useful proof of this “fact.” Both Franken’s book Lies… and Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? show that Goldberg in particular, but also Reed Irvine, whom Posner also cites as “proving” his case, are full of it. (Irvine has been riding this hobbyhorse for 2 decades, in fact, and is well-known as a single-issue nut who spends all of his time striving to nail “leftist” bias in the media. The day he points out something screwy on Fox is the day…well, I will refrain from some smart-aleck analogy. But that’s ALL he and his outfit, Accuracy in Media, does.) The honest conservatives admit that this is simply a way of advancing their agenda. I mean, all these manly types who are so in favor of laissez-faire suddenly want the government to step in and provide affirmative action for poor little misunderstood white guys on PBS and elsewhere? Please. So for Posner to simply toss in what is well-known to be crap (had he provided new evidence of his own, I’d have been more impressed) is a signal of his own refusal to do the digging necessary–and perhaps a sign that maybe, um, you can’t actually be knowledgeable about everything all the time.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    I think conservatives go way over the top on the liberal bias in mainstream media, but don’t deny that it doesn’t exist. Most journalists are liberals and, if we agree that “objectivity” is a load of crap, then of course there’s a bias. We can’t have this conversation if there’s Goldberg on the one side and Franken on the other, both nuts who are too blinded by their own dogmatic extremism to have a thoughtful conversation. Fox doesn’t claim to be unbiased (so says insiders, putting what Fox says to the public to one side). The Times and CNN DO claim to be unbiased. And of course they aren’t.

    Sure, Posner’s piece may not have been deep enough for your or Jack Shafer’s taste, but how deep can you get when editors ask you to do a “state of the news media” piece that’s 4,000 words in a popular press paper? He covered the issues and had a thoughtful conclusion, I thought.

  5. Jesse says:

    >I think conservatives go way over the top on the liberal bias in mainstream
    >media, but don’t deny that it doesn’t exist. Most journalists are liberals
    >and, if we agree that “objectivity” is a load of crap, then of course
    >there’s a bias.

    Of course there’s a bias, in that everyone has a point of view. But to
    assume that there’s a concerted and organized liberal bias is wrong–see
    Nicholas Lemann’s piece in the New Yorker recently, which points out that
    somehow journalists are by this model assumed to be such idiots that they
    can’t control (or won’t) what they say and how, and thus any Democratic
    voter is by definition going to write biased liberal claptrap. I think it’s
    actually the reverse–liberals go overboard in criticizing their own and
    bend over backwards to be nice to conservatives, since they’re so terrified
    of being accused of bias. Read Alterman’s well-sourced and and
    amply-documented discussion of the coverage of Bush vs that of Gore in
    2000, for instance. I think that what’s covered HAS tended to be more based
    on a Northeastern elite model–not many stories about things like hunting,
    church-going, wrestling, trucks, etc. But not all of those are
    “conservative,” unless we want to pretend that no conservatives go to
    Harvard and are wealthy northeasterners.

    >We can’t have this conversation if there’s Goldberg on the
    >one side and Franken on the other, both nuts who are too blinded by their
    >own dogmatic extremism to have a thoughtful conversation.

    Um, Franken is not a nut. Read what he shows about Goldberg’s book: it’s
    just a dishonest piece of writing. Flat out. Have you actually read
    Franken? I bet not. You want a nut? Grover Norquist, who wants to literally
    kill government–we should never, ever, ever raise taxes, he believes, no
    matter what–is an extremist. Jerry Falwell, who said feminism and
    homosexuality were to blame for 9/11, is an extremist. Franken isn’t. Show
    me 5 “extremist” quotes by him. I bet you 6 dumplings you can’t.

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