Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bia$

Virginia Postrel has the economist’s take on media bias: It sells.

In a recent paper, "The Market for News," two Harvard economists look at that question.

"There's plenty of competition" among news sources, Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the authors, said in an interview. But "the more competition there has been in the last 20 years, the more discussion there has been of bias."

The reason, he and his colleague, Andrei Shleifer, argue, is that consumers care about more than accuracy. "We assume that readers prefer to hear or read news that are more consistent with their beliefs," they write. Bias is not a bug but a feature.

In a competitive news market, they argue, producers can use bias to differentiate their products and stave off price competition. Bias increases consumer loyalty.

Given the smashing success of Fox News – which melds right-wing bias and a Red America “look” in everything from graphics to wardrobe, hair and makeup – this is such an obvious point it hardly deserves further comment. But it has a lot of implications.

In a fragmented media environment, no one commands absolute trust anymore. The mainstream media? Vaguely liberal and won’t admit it. Starts riots. The right-wing media? Good at blowing holes in the MSM and supporting the president, lousy at self-examination.

So many people aren’t looking for the truth - after all, it might make them angry or uncomfortable. They want an interpretation of it that reassures them and confirms what they already think.

Like any business, the media go where the money is, and it's now found in small cultural and political niches that can be targeted by TV, Internet and radio with ideologically flavored content that fills this need. This has a certain appeal - let a thousand flowers bloom! Is it necessarily worse than Walter Cronkite or the New York Times delivering Gergen-esque consensus-speak from on high?

But the danger is that people get trapped in their spoon-fed niches and stop thinking altogether.