[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Richard Posner: Bad News
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Sat Jul 30 15:25:36 UTC 2005
Richard Posner: Bad News
["Up Front" attached]
BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Press Bias and Politics: How the Media Frame Controversial Issues, by Jim A.
Kuypers. Praeger. Paper, $28.95. All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the
Market Transforms Information Into News, by James T. Hamilton. Princeton
The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century, edited by
Robert W. McChesney, Russell Newman and Ben Scott. Seven Stories. Paper,
$19.95. Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American
Journalism, by William McGowan. Encounter. Paper, $16.95.
Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq, by Michael Massing. New York
Review. Paper, $9.95.
What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, by Eric Alterman. Basic
Books. Paper, $15.
Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, by Bernard
Goldberg. Perennial/ HarperCollins. Paper, $13.95.
Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media, by L.
Brent Bozell III. Three Rivers. Paper, $13.95.
THE conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and
right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart
bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their
audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds.
In a recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 65
percent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if
they discover they've made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up,
and 79 percent opined that a media company would hesitate to carry
negative stories about a corporation from which it received
substantial advertising revenues.
The industry's critics agree that the function of the news is to
inform people about social, political, cultural, ethical and economic
issues so that they can vote and otherwise express themselves as
responsible citizens. They agree on the related point that journalism
is a profession rather than just a trade and therefore that
journalists and their employers must not allow profit considerations
to dominate, but must acknowledge an ethical duty to report the news
accurately, soberly, without bias, reserving the expression of
political preferences for the editorial page and its radio and
television counterparts. The critics further agree, as they must, that
30 years ago news reporting was dominated by newspapers and by
television network news and that the audiences for these media have
declined with the rise of competing sources, notably cable television
and the Web.
The audience decline is potentially fatal for newspapers. Not only has
their daily readership dropped from 52.6 percent of adults in 1990 to
37.5 percent in 2000, but the drop is much steeper in the
20-to-49-year-old cohort, a generation that is, and as it ages will
remain, much more comfortable with electronic media in general and the
Web in particular than the current elderly are.
At this point the diagnosis splits along political lines. Liberals,
including most journalists (because most journalists are liberals),
believe that the decline of the formerly dominant ''mainstream'' media
has caused a deterioration in quality. They attribute this decline to
the rise of irresponsible journalism on the right, typified by the Fox
News Channel (the most-watched cable television news channel), Rush
Limbaugh's radio talk show and right-wing blogs by Matt Drudge and
others. But they do not spare the mainstream media, which, they
contend, provide in the name of balance an echo chamber for the right.
To these critics, the deterioration of journalism is exemplified by
the attack of the ''Swift boat'' Vietnam veterans on Senator John
Kerry during the 2004 election campaign. The critics describe the
attack as consisting of lies propagated by the new right-wing media
and reported as news by mainstream media made supine by anxiety over
their declining fortunes.
Critics on the right applaud the rise of the conservative media as a
long-overdue corrective to the liberal bias of the mainstream media,
which, according to Jim A. Kuypers, the author of ''Press Bias and
Politics,'' are ''a partisan collective which both consciously and
unconsciously attempts to persuade the public to accept its
interpretation of the world as true.'' Fourteen percent of Americans
describe themselves as liberals, and 26 percent as conservatives. The
corresponding figures for journalists are 56 percent and 18 percent.
This means that of all journalists who consider themselves either
liberal or conservative, 76 percent consider themselves liberal,
compared with only 35 percent of the public that has a stated
So politically one-sided are the mainstream media, the right complains
(while sliding over the fact that the owners and executives, as
distinct from the working journalists, tend to be far less liberal),
that not only do they slant the news in a liberal direction; they will
stop at nothing to defeat conservative politicians and causes. The
right points to the ''60 Minutes II'' broadcast in which Dan Rather
paraded what were probably forged documents concerning George W.
Bush's National Guard service, and to Newsweek's erroneous report,
based on a single anonymous source, that an American interrogator had
flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet (a physical impossibility,
one would have thought).
Strip these critiques of their indignation, treat them as descriptions
rather than as denunciations, and one sees that they are consistent
with one another and basically correct. The mainstream media are
predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be.
But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather,
because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a
political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already
liberal media farther left.
The news media have also become more sensational, more prone to
scandal and possibly less accurate. But note the tension between
sensationalism and polarization: the trial of Michael Jackson got
tremendous coverage, displacing a lot of political coverage, but it
had no political valence.
The interesting questions are, first, the why of these trends, and,
second, so what?
The why is the vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic
communication and the relaxation of regulatory barriers to entry,
leading to the proliferation of consumer choices. Thirty years ago the
average number of television channels that Americans could receive was
seven; today, with the rise of cable and satellite television, it is
71. Thirty years ago there was no Internet, therefore no Web, hence no
online newspapers and magazines, no blogs. The public's consumption of
news and opinion used to be like sucking on a straw; now it's like
being sprayed by a fire hose.
To see what difference the elimination of a communications bottleneck
can make, consider a town that before the advent of television or even
radio had just two newspapers because economies of scale made it
impossible for a newspaper with a small circulation to break even.
Each of the two, to increase its advertising revenues, would try to
maximize circulation by pitching its news to the median reader, for
that reader would not be attracted to a newspaper that flaunted
extreme political views. There would be the same tendency to political
convergence that is characteristic of two-party political systems, and
for the same reason - attracting the least committed is the key to
obtaining a majority.
One of the two newspapers would probably be liberal and have a loyal
readership of liberal readers, and the other conservative and have a
loyal conservative readership. That would leave a middle range. To
snag readers in that range, the liberal newspaper could not afford to
be too liberal or the conservative one too conservative. The former
would strive to be just liberal enough to hold its liberal readers,
and the latter just conservative enough to hold its conservative
readers. If either moved too close to its political extreme, it would
lose readers in the middle without gaining readers from the extreme,
since it had them already.
But suppose cost conditions change, enabling a newspaper to break even
with many fewer readers than before. Now the liberal newspaper has to
worry that any temporizing of its message in an effort to attract
moderates may cause it to lose its most liberal readers to a new, more
liberal newspaper; for with small-scale entry into the market now
economical, the incumbents no longer have a secure base. So the
liberal newspaper will tend to become even more liberal and, by the
same process, the conservative newspaper more conservative. (If
economies of scale increase, and as a result the number of newspapers
grows, the opposite ideological change will be observed, as happened
in the 19th century. The introduction of the ''penny press'' in the
1830's enabled newspapers to obtain large circulations and thus
finance themselves by selling advertising; no longer did they have to
depend on political patronage.)
The current tendency to political polarization in news reporting is
thus a consequence of changes not in underlying political opinions but
in costs, specifically the falling costs of new entrants. The rise of
the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left. CNN
was going to lose many of its conservative viewers to Fox anyway, so
it made sense to increase its appeal to its remaining viewers by
catering more assiduously to their political preferences.
The tendency to greater sensationalism in reporting is a parallel
phenomenon. The more news sources there are, the more intense the
struggle for an audience. One tactic is to occupy an overlooked niche
- peeling away from the broad-based media a segment of the consuming
public whose interests were not catered to previously. That is the
tactic that produces polarization. Another is to ''shout louder'' than
the competitors, where shouting takes the form of a sensational,
attention-grabbing discovery, accusation, claim or photograph.
According to James T. Hamilton in his valuable book ''All the News
That's Fit to Sell,'' this even explains why the salaries paid news
anchors have soared: the more competition there is for an audience,
the more valuable is a celebrity newscaster.
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.''
Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their
audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand
posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They
serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive
pressure, the better they do it. We see this in the media's coverage
of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues.
Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that
might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little
play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of
campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates'
statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness;
it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political
candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken
seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the
track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public
that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.
We saw this in the coverage of the selection of Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor's successor. It was played as an election campaign; one
article even described the jockeying for the nomination by President
Bush as the ''primary election'' and the fight to get the nominee
confirmed by the Senate the ''general election'' campaign. With only a
few exceptions, no attention was paid to the ability of the people
being considered for the job or the actual consequences that the
appointment was likely to have for the nation.
Does this mean that the news media were better before competition
polarized them? Not at all. A market gives people what they want,
whether they want the same thing or different things. Challenging
areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus,
is largely off limits for the media, because it wins no friends among
the general public. The mainstream media do not kick sacred cows like
religion and patriotism.
Not that the media lie about the news they report; in fact, they have
strong incentives not to lie. Instead, there is selection, slanting,
decisions as to how much or how little prominence to give a particular
news item. Giving a liberal spin to equivocal economic data when
conservatives are in power is, as the Harvard economists Sendhil
Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer point out, a matter of describing the
glass as half empty when conservatives would describe it as half full.
Journalists are reluctant to confess to pandering to their customers'
biases; it challenges their self-image as servants of the general
interest, unsullied by commerce. They want to think they inform the
public, rather than just satisfying a consumer demand no more elevated
or consequential than the demand for cosmetic surgery in Brazil or
bullfights in Spain. They believe in ''deliberative democracy'' -
democracy as the system in which the people determine policy through
deliberation on the issues. In his preface to ''The Future of Media''
(a collection of articles edited by Robert W. McChesney, Russell
Newman and Ben Scott), Bill Moyers writes that ''democracy can't exist
without an informed public.'' If this is true, the United States is
not a democracy (which may be Moyers's dyspeptic view). Only members
of the intelligentsia, a tiny slice of the population, deliberate on
The public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth
than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors.
Conservatives were unembarrassed by the errors of the Swift Boat
veterans, while taking gleeful satisfaction in the exposure of the
forgeries on which Dan Rather had apparently relied, and in his
resulting fall from grace. They reveled in Newsweek's retracting its
story about flushing the Koran down a toilet yet would prefer that
American abuse of prisoners be concealed. Still, because there is a
market demand for correcting the errors and ferreting out the misdeeds
of one's enemies, the media exercise an important oversight function,
creating accountability and deterring wrongdoing. That, rather than
educating the public about the deep issues, is their great social
mission. It shows how a market produces a social good as an unintended
byproduct of self-interested behavior.
The limited consumer interest in the truth is the key to understanding
why both left and right can plausibly denounce the same media for
being biased in favor of the other. Journalists are writing to meet a
consumer demand that is not a demand for uncomfortable truths. So a
newspaper that appeals to liberal readers will avoid exposés of bad
behavior by blacks or homosexuals, as William McGowan charges in
''Coloring the News''; similarly, Daniel Okrent, the first ombudsman
of The New York Times, said that the news pages of The Times ''present
the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that
approaches cheerleading.'' Not only would such exposés offend liberal
readers who are not black or homosexual; many blacks and homosexuals
are customers of liberal newspapers, and no business wants to offend a
But the same liberal newspaper or television news channel will pull
some of its punches when it comes to reporting on the activities of
government, even in Republican administrations, thus giving credence
to the left critique, as in Michael Massing's ''Now They Tell Us,''
about the reporting of the war in Iraq. A newspaper depends on access
to officials for much of its information about what government is
doing and planning, and is reluctant to bite too hard the hand that
feeds it. Nevertheless, it is hyperbole for Eric Alterman to claim in
''What Liberal Media?'' that ''liberals are fighting a near-hopeless
battle in which they are enormously outmatched by most measures'' by
the conservative media, or for Bill Moyers to say that ''the
marketplace of political ideas'' is dominated by a ''quasi-official
partisan press ideologically linked to an authoritarian
administration.'' In a sample of 23 leading newspapers and
newsmagazines, the liberal ones had twice the circulation of the
conservative. The bias in some of the reporting in the liberal media,
acknowledged by Okrent, is well documented by McGowan, as well as by
Bernard Goldberg in ''Bias'' and L. Brent Bozell III in ''Weapons of
Journalists minimize offense, preserve an aura of objectivity and
cater to the popular taste for conflict and contests by - in the name
of ''balance'' - reporting both sides of an issue, even when there
aren't two sides. So ''intelligent design,'' formerly called by the
oxymoron ''creation science,'' though it is religious dogma thinly
disguised, gets almost equal billing with the theory of evolution. If
journalists admitted that the economic imperatives of their industry
overrode their political beliefs, they would weaken the right's
critique of liberal media bias.
The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic
establishment is the blog. Journalists accuse bloggers of having
lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded - it is
the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to
professional journalists and their principal employers, the
conventional news media. A serious newspaper, like The Times, is a
large, hierarchical commercial enterprise that interposes layers of
review, revision and correction between the reporter and the published
report and that to finance its large staff depends on advertising
revenues and hence on the good will of advertisers and (because
advertising revenues depend to a great extent on circulation) readers.
These dependences constrain a newspaper in a variety of ways. But in
addition, with its reputation heavily invested in accuracy, so that
every serious error is a potential scandal, a newspaper not only has
to delay publication of many stories to permit adequate checking but
also has to institute rules for avoiding error - like requiring more
than a single source for a story or limiting its reporters' reliance
on anonymous sources - that cost it many scoops.
Blogs don't have these worries. Their only cost is the time of the
blogger, and that cost may actually be negative if the blogger can use
the publicity that he obtains from blogging to generate lecture fees
and book royalties. Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be
accurate. Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no
reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to
cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much
narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for.
He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional
media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media's customers one by one, as
And bloggers thus can specialize in particular topics to an extent
that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more
that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have
to hire in order to be able to cover all bases. A newspaper will not
hire a journalist for his knowledge of old typewriters, but plenty of
people in the blogosphere have that esoteric knowledge, and it was
they who brought down Dan Rather. Similarly, not being commercially
constrained, a blogger can stick with and dig into a story longer and
deeper than the conventional media dare to, lest their readers become
bored. It was the bloggers' dogged persistence in pursuing a story
that the conventional media had tired of that forced Trent Lott to
resign as Senate majority leader.
What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that
although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere
as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the
conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of
information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the
dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers
who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment
the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs
themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic
This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually
instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches
a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the
public. This is true not only of newspaper retractions - usually
printed inconspicuously and in any event rarely read, because readers
have forgotten the article being corrected - but also of network
television news. It took CBS so long to acknowledge Dan Rather's
mistake because there are so many people involved in the production
and supervision of a program like ''60 Minutes II'' who have to be
The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and
balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than
the conventional media; only they are different. The model is
Friedrich Hayek's classic analysis of how the economic market pools
enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its
decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or
regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its
In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise - not 12 million
separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters,
feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It's as
if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of
them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that
carried no advertising.
How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when
the competition is not entirely fair. The bloggers are parasitical on
the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by
the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking
up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of
those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper
articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without
buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media
is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting,
but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the
ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on
which bloggers depend.
Some critics worry that ''unfiltered'' media like blogs exacerbate
social tensions by handing a powerful electronic platform to
extremists at no charge. Bad people find one another in cyberspace and
so gain confidence in their crazy ideas. The conventional media filter
out extreme views to avoid offending readers, viewers and advertisers;
most bloggers have no such inhibition.
The argument for filtering is an argument for censorship. (That it is
made by liberals is evidence that everyone secretly favors censorship
of the opinions he fears.) But probably there is little harm and some
good in unfiltered media. They enable unorthodox views to get a
hearing. They get 12 million people to write rather than just stare
passively at a screen. In an age of specialization and
professionalism, they give amateurs a platform. They allow people to
blow off steam who might otherwise adopt more dangerous forms of
self-expression. They even enable the authorities to keep tabs on
potential troublemakers; intelligence and law enforcement agencies
devote substantial resources to monitoring blogs and Internet chat
And most people are sensible enough to distrust communications in an
unfiltered medium. They know that anyone can create a blog at
essentially zero cost, that most bloggers are uncredentialed amateurs,
that bloggers don't employ fact checkers and don't have editors and
that a blogger can hide behind a pseudonym. They know, in short, that
until a blogger's assertions are validated (as when the mainstream
media acknowledge an error discovered by a blogger), there is no
reason to repose confidence in what he says. The mainstream media, by
contrast, assure their public that they make strenuous efforts to
prevent errors from creeping into their articles and broadcasts. They
ask the public to trust them, and that is why their serious errors are
A survey by the National Opinion Research Center finds that the
public's confidence in the press declined from about 85 percent in
1973 to 59 percent in 2002, with most of the decline occurring since
1991. Over both the longer and the shorter period, there was little
change in public confidence in other major institutions. So it seems
there are special factors eroding trust in the news industry. One is
that the blogs have exposed errors by the mainstream media that might
otherwise have gone undiscovered or received less publicity. Another
is that competition by the blogs, as well as by the other new media,
has pushed the established media to get their stories out faster,
which has placed pressure on them to cut corners. So while the
blogosphere is a marvelous system for prompt error correction, it is
not clear whether its net effect is to reduce the amount of error in
the media as a whole.
But probably the biggest reason for declining trust in the media is
polarization. As media companies are pushed closer to one end of the
political spectrum or the other, the trust placed in them erodes.
Their motives are assumed to be political. This may explain recent Pew
Research Center poll data that show Republicans increasingly regarding
the media as too critical of the government and Democrats increasingly
regarding them as not critical enough.
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
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.
So when all the pluses and minuses of the impact of technological and
economic change on the news media are toted up and compared, maybe
there isn't much to fret about.
Richard A. Posner is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for
the Seventh Circuit, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago
Law School and, along with the economist Gary Becker, the author of
The Becker-Posner Blog.
By THE EDITORS
How does Richard A. Posner do it? A federal appeals court judge, a
senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, an editor of
The American Law and Economics Review and a blogger, he is the
author of 38 books, more than 300 articles and book reviews (including
one, in these pages last year, of the 9/11 Commission Report), and
almost 2,200 published judicial opinions. One reaches for science
fiction explanations: Posner has cloned himself; he has found a way to
slow down time. Surely it's the case that he never sleeps.
Posner may be inhumanly prolific, but he is neither formulaic nor
superficial. In books like ''The Frontiers of Legal Theory,''
''Catastrophe: Risk and Response'' and ''An Affair of State: The
Investigation, Impeachment and Trial of President Clinton,'' he ranges
widely, mastering a vast array of material, from economics, literature
and philosophy to sex and aging. He is also the founder of an
influential school of legal interpretation.
In an essay on the credibility of the news media, ''Bad News,''
Posner weaves his way through the arguments of left and right with his
predictable unpredictability, providing a surprisingly nonpolitical
perspective on a very political subject.
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