Monday, August 01, 2005

Watch a little "Scarborough Country" and rethink things, Judge Posner

I couldn't get very far into Richard Posner's long essay on the media in the NYT Book Review. I started reading, but he seemed to be stating rather obvious points not particularly well. Then it turned out I didn't have to read the damn thing because Jack Shafer promptly confirmed my impression and eviscerated it as hackwork.

The thing that stopped me was what seemed to be Posner's central point (and the reason the NYT commissioned this - to give us a distinctly Posnerian insight that no one else has had). After reciting common arguments on the left and the right - the left complains that the right wing media are biased and inaccurate and eroding the quality of the MSM; the right complains that the media are liberal - he says this:

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.

Here Posner commits the basic error of many conservative media critics - he buys into the symmetry fallacy: the idea that in our political culture "liberal" and "conservative" describe mirror-images or symmetrical opposites.

They don't. The "conservative media" are explicitly conservative. Sometimes outlets like Fox News theatrically pretend not to be. What Posner calls the "liberal media" do have a lot of liberals working for them - as he notes. Sometimes their collective bias - or more often, just attitude - creeps into the coverage. But the MSM follow a different set of rules than the conservative media - one reason they are falling all over themselves these days. Can you really say that the Washington Post is liberal in the the same sense that the Washington Times is conservative?

These are obvious points familiar to anyone who has followed the endless debate over media bias the past few years. It sounds like Posner is visiting his formidable brainpower on this subject for the first time, like an anthropologist documenting his encounter with a previously undiscovered stone-age tribe. He doesn't seem to know Journalism 101 - for instance, the distinction between an average newspaper's editorial positions (politically/ideologically identifiable) and its news pages (not).

In one section, Posner makes hash not just of journalism, but of economics and political science. He postulates a town with two newspapers, one liberal, one conservative, each occupying a niche analogous to the Democratic and Republican Parties:

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.

Leaving aside the alt-weekly market, is there any town in America where the "liberal newspaper" has slanted its coverage more to the left recently to attract more "liberal" readers? If anything, the opposite is true. Newspapers are more concerned now with charges of liberal bias, not less. And as Shafer notes, the idea that CNN has moved leftward to compensate for Fox news is laughable.

Some friendly editor at the Book Review should have sent this back for another draft.