Yeah, I'm back. I'm a bit behind on my news, though I heard a fair amount of NPR news over the past week (which was worthwhile) and took in some CNN (which wasn't).
I came back to note that in recent weeks Richard Posner apparently read, or at least skimmed, several books on the state of news in America, then wrote an essay that barely mentions the books; he turned the essay in to The New York Times Book Review, and it wound up on the Book Review's cover. The essay is an ungodly mess -- and not just because it contains one utterly jaw-dropping sentence:
The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left.
It's because Posner sees everything that's happening to the press right now as the result of economic determinism. Posner says this even though he notes that Americans have very little respect for the press, according to polls, and that fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers. Now, I've always thought that economic forces compelled for-profit businesses to do stuff that made them more money and made more people like their products, not the other way around, but I guess I'm just not as smart as Richard Posner.
Posner argues that the press becomes more polemic when there's more competition. To illustrate how this works, he imagines a town some time ago with two newspapers:
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.
Which explains a lot about our news now -- if you live in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land and think CNN has in recent years gone as far to the left as Fox has to the right.
In fact, Fox and the rest of the Murdoch media empire are like past right-wing media empires -- Time and the L.A. Times and the Hearst papers -- that skewed right under hands-on right-wing tycoons. All of the above eventually drifted to the center or left not because the economic landscape changed but because the SOBs who built the empires were no longer in the pictue; it'll happen with Murdoch's empure, too.
Meanwhile, we have Posner making absurd statements like this:
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.
They do? It's my impression that most liberal critics believe the mainstream press began to decline 25 or 30 years ago: owners of TV networks began demanding that news divisions generate serious profits, both networks and newspapers shuttered news bureaus overseas, there were decines in investigative journalism (in the print press) and documentaries (on commercial TV news); "service" pieces crowded out serious news. Reaganism spurred consolidation of media ownership; the press turned timid after Watergate. Then along came cable to eat into broadcast TV's profits; talk radio followed, then the Internet. It's a complicated story, but the press seemed in decline long before Limbaugh or Fox.
Argh -- are you still with me? I'm bored just hacking my way through the piece; I apologize if I'm boring you. (This response to Posner's ungodly mess is itself, I guess, an ungodly mess.) Maybe you should just read the article, assuming you want to punish yourself. Oh, but did I mention that Posner actually quotes Daniel Okrent favorably?
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."
Well, duh -- newspapers, the Times especially, present straight marriage, or at least straight weddings, in a tone that approaches cheerleading, even though an awful lot of straight people go on to endure difficult, painful marriages. If you think gay and straight marriage are equivalent, why the hell wouldn't you see the gay version through the same rose-colored glasses you use for straight marriage?
And this makes me chuckle:
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.
Yeah -- did you know that if it weren't for us bloggers and our links, you'd have to buy a print newspaper to read news on the Web?
UPDATE: In Slate, Jack Shafer posts a much better response to Posner than mine.