Can I summarize four pages in one sentence? Low costs of entry to the media business have driven news outlets away from the political center in search of readers who want entertainment and validation rather than "news".
Hmm, Posner says many nice, interesting things about blog as a new media, which did not get into that sentence. Oh, dear. However, we welcome reader's suggestions for a "Shorter Posner" in the comments below - anyone who can summarize this article would be doing the rest of us a favor.
And of course, there are bonus points for anyone with a sensible alternative view.
Meanwhile, as Mark Twain almost said, sorry for the long post; I didn't have time for a shorter one.
Los of excerpts after the leap; the Becker-Posner blog may have a follow-up, too.
UPDATE: Posner mentions Harvard economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer. Virginia Postrel described their work in the Times; Sissy Willis has highlights. Posner certainly liked one of their ideas - a Fox News coming in on the right may actually drive a CNN further to the left.
Strip these [liberal and conservative critiques of the media] 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.
The news media have also become more sensational, more prone to scandal and possibly less accurate. But note the tension between sensationalism and polarization: the trial of Michael Jackson got tremendous coverage, displacing a lot of political coverage, but it had no political valence.
The interesting questions are, first, the why of these trends, and, second, so what?
The why is the vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic communication and the relaxation of regulatory barriers to entry, leading to the proliferation of consumer choices. Thirty years ago the average number of television channels that Americans could receive was seven; today, with the rise of cable and satellite television, it is 71. Thirty years ago there was no Internet, therefore no Web, hence no online newspapers and magazines, no blogs. 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.
To see what difference the elimination of a communications bottleneck can make, consider a town that before the advent of television or even radio had just two newspapers because economies of scale made it impossible for a newspaper with a small circulation to break even. Each of the two, to increase its advertising revenues, would try to maximize circulation by pitching its news to the median reader, for that reader would not be attracted to a newspaper that flaunted extreme political views. There would be the same tendency to political convergence that is characteristic of two-party political systems, and for the same reason - attracting the least committed is the key to obtaining a majority.
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. (If economies of scale increase, and as a result the number of newspapers grows, the opposite ideological change will be observed, as happened in the 19th century. The introduction of the ''penny press'' in the 1830's enabled newspapers to obtain large circulations and thus finance themselves by selling advertising; no longer did they have to depend on political patronage.)
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. The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left. CNN was going to lose many of its conservative viewers to Fox anyway, so it made sense to increase its appeal to its remaining viewers by catering more assiduously to their political preferences.
Now, do news readers want the truth? They can't handle the truth:
The argument that competition increases polarization assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones. Natural as that assumption is, it conflicts with one of the points on which left and right agree - that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They're also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.
So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want 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. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ''a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.''
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. We see this in the media's coverage of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues. Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates' statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness; it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.
...Does this mean that the news media were better before competition polarized them? Not at all. A market gives people what they want, whether they want the same thing or different things. Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media, because it wins no friends among the general public. The mainstream media do not kick sacred cows like religion and patriotism.
The public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors. Conservatives were unembarrassed by the errors of the Swift Boat veterans, while taking gleeful satisfaction in the exposure of the forgeries on which Dan Rather had apparently relied, and in his resulting fall from grace. They reveled in Newsweek's retracting its story about flushing the Koran down a toilet yet would prefer that American abuse of prisoners be concealed. Still, because there is a market demand for correcting the errors and ferreting out the misdeeds of one's enemies, the media exercise an important oversight function, creating accountability and deterring wrongdoing. That, rather than educating the public about the deep issues, is their great social mission. It shows how a market produces a social good as an unintended byproduct of self-interested behavior.
The limited consumer interest in the truth is the key to understanding why both left and right can plausibly denounce the same media for being biased in favor of the other. Journalists are writing to meet a consumer demand that is not a demand for uncomfortable truths.
And how about blogs:
The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog. Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded - it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media. A serious newspaper, like The Times, is a large, hierarchical commercial enterprise that interposes layers of review, revision and correction between the reporter and the published report and that to finance its large staff depends on advertising revenues and hence on the good will of advertisers and (because advertising revenues depend to a great extent on circulation) readers. These dependences constrain a newspaper in a variety of ways. But in addition, with its reputation heavily invested in accuracy, so that every serious error is a potential scandal, a newspaper not only has to delay publication of many stories to permit adequate checking but also has to institute rules for avoiding error - like requiring more than a single source for a story or limiting its reporters' reliance on anonymous sources - that cost it many scoops.
Blogs don't have these worries. Their only cost is the time of the blogger, and that cost may actually be negative if the blogger can use the publicity that he obtains from blogging to generate lecture fees and book royalties. Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be accurate. Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for. He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media's customers one by one, as it were.
And bloggers thus can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases. A newspaper will not hire a journalist for his knowledge of old typewriters, but plenty of people in the blogosphere have that esoteric knowledge, and it was they who brought down Dan Rather. Similarly, not being commercially constrained, a blogger can stick with and dig into a story longer and deeper than the conventional media dare to, lest their readers become bored. It was the bloggers' dogged persistence in pursuing a story that the conventional media had tired of that forced Trent Lott to resign as Senate majority leader.
Well, I don't think the media "tired of" the Trent Lott story - I think they ignored it altogether. That said, his mention of specialty sites does ring a bell here at the Plame Blogcasting Network.
Truth can get its boots on pretty quickly in the blogosphere:
What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.
This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public.
The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media; only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek's classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants.
In effect, 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. It's as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.
And what does it all mean? From their Big Finish:
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.
"Isn't much to fret about"? We'll find something!