Wednesday, August 03, 2005

When bad news is good news ... If prolificacy is a sin, Richard Posner is surely one of the more venial writers around. As a federal judge, a law professor, a voluminous author, and more recently, even a blogger, he has a clear tendency to spread himself thin; yet what he lacks in research and topical expertise, he typically makes up for with intuitive analysis.

Posner's recent 4,600-word essay on the present state of our media is a perfect case in point. As Jack Shafer lays out at Slate (warning: he does so in meticulous -- one might even say vindictive -- detail), Posner's essay suffers from a credibility gap of sorts when it comes to specifics. But the general thrust is both well-reasoned and convincing. Take the coda alone:

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.

Yet what of the sliver of the public that does have a serious interest in policy issues? Are these people less well served than in the old days? Another recent survey by the Pew Research Center finds that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, including that bane of the right, National Public Radio, are attracting ever larger audiences. And for that sliver of a sliver that invites challenges to its biases by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that watches CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between, the increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before.

So when all the pluses and minuses of the impact of technological and economic change on the news media are toted up and compared, maybe there isn't much to fret about.

That sounds about right. Different people want -- and will pay for -- different slants on the news; the more accessible the news market becomes, the more news companies will, in order to meet a particular demand, identify themselves with a particular viewpoint; the more this happens, the more efficiently the news market as a whole behaves; the more efficiently it behaves, the less reasonable it is to bemoan the industry as being in "decline".

Or in my own, less systemic terms: I may not like Fox News, but believing in a truly free press means believing the connection that Fox has forged with its audience is in fact a healthy thing.


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