Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (and lecturer at Univ. of Chicago Law School), wrote an interesting examination of the media landscape in the U.S.
Posner concluded in a compelling summary paragraph:
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.
Pasner's essay is not without problems. It strays in places and wallows in the tired old "liberal [mainstream] liberal" baloney. (See critique here.) But, those elements of his essay don't lessen the power of some of his keen observations.
Here are some other gems from the essay:
- "[T]he rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused [political] polarization" within the media.
- "Thirty years ago there was no Internet, therefore no Web.... 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."
- "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."
- "So why do people consume news and opinion? In part" -- "to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives," "to be entertained" (e.g., "scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful"), 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."
- "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. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded."
- "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."
- "The public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors."
- "The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog."
- "[T]he blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do.
"The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse.
"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."
- "The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is...that [bloggers] 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.
- "[W]hile 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.