Posner's Generalizations


For those (few) of you who like long, thumbsuckery analyses of Where The Media Is Now, this much-discussed Richard Posner New York Times essay is worth your 15 minutes. His Reason-like conclusion? "Maybe there isn't much to fret about."

Of course, as an inveterate sucker of thumbs myself, I have some quibbles, which I'll attempt to hide below the "Continue Reading" fold.

Posner, the generalist's generalist, mostly gets into trouble when he, well, generalizes. For instance, his second graf:

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.

Italics mine. Fact is, "the industry's critics" is a group so diverse that it's arguably unscientific to assert that they "agree" on most anything, let alone something as hotly debated as "the function of the news," and whether journalism should be considered a "profession." The institutional/academic critique, perhaps best represented by Herbert Gans, has spent much breath in recent years arguing fervently for its own theories on "the function of news," one which is close to Posner's description. But the outsider/blogger analysis, represented (for the sake of my own generalization) by Glenn Reynolds, has been arguing just as fervently against the notion that journalism is some kind of exalted "profession," conducted by a credentialed elite.

This opening mistake matters, because Posner's trying to make sense out of the many conflicting (and self-contradictory) currents in the modern media argument. For instance, he asserts, without one shred of evidence, that:

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 … possibly less accurate.

With the exception of Howell Raines' activist tenure at The New York Times (a paper, it must always be emphasized, that has long filled a niche political profile in a highly competitive market), where's even the anecdotal evidence that mainstream media (as a product, not a collective of voters) has made a sudden jerk leftward? I don't see it, though my eyes are different than Posner's. Also—blogs are not a political phenomenon? O-k-a-y…. And I'd bet a stack of Jayson Blair trading cards that Big Media is more accurate in the era of 12 million distributed fact-checkers.

Posner also draws out a long hypothetical involving a city with two newspapers, one liberal, one conservative, both long competing for the overlapping moderate middle.

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.

Unfortunately, this is just wishful thinking, at least so far. (Not to mention a misreading of the way large liberal-leaning newspapers tend to view themselves, which is to say: not necessarily as liberal newspapers.) The hypothetical describes mostly Pittsburgh, as far as I'm aware (Washington D.C. is too dominated by the Post to be described as much of a real "competition"). And of the many new low-cost newspapers, only the DC Examiner has shown much of a political orientation.

Though Posner ends with a positive shrug that I can totally endorse, his interesting list of competing claims in the media-criticism universe fails to grapple with two compelling contradictions: 1) That many of the more politicized media critics (on all sides), even while getting purple in the face demanding more accuracy and rigor, are, by their very own published output & also the group pressure they are applying, pushing the dreaded MSM to be more ideological, and therefore (in my view) less accurate and rigorous. 2) That even with the massively defecting audience, the media organizations that have the most readers and viewers in a raucously competitive marketplace still make money hand over fist. Some of the juiciest profits in all of American business, in fact. The Revolution that many keep forecasting is still largely a bottom-up affair that has little practical impact on the way great news organizations run themselves. Aside from a handful of successful specific ankle-bites, and a general gloomy sense from within the top newsrooms that ill winds are blowing. While interesting (and funny, at least to me), this malaise as a broad concept is nothing remotely new.