Bad News or Good Economics?

An essay in the New York Times Book Review
presents an interesting overview of the pressures on the news media, the
influence of bloggers and the resulting attitudinal shifts in the audience for
news. It’s an instructive discussion.

Why are we more polarized in the U.S. than consensus oriented? Why do the Mainstream media seem unable to please anyone and are losing audiences to other, more specialized media? Why is Rush Limbaugh so successful? And why, given the availability of more information, are we no better informed about public policy than in the past?

An essay by Richard Posner, appearing in the New York Times tomorrow, offers an insightful discussion of these and a host of other equally intriguing questions.

Posner gives the most simplified and cogent description of the economic realities that move media toward the center or into the groove of confirming the pre-set beliefs of the audience. This looks like bias, selling out, or caving-in to to those who disagree. To those who agree, it looks like fair and balanced coverage.

Posner’s formulation of these economic pressures makes more sense than the simple argument that journalists are biased and pursuing their own agenda when they cover a story. Perhaps some are biased, but without the willing consent of their editors they can’t do much to push personal bias.

On the other hand, when economic pressures bear down on a media operation, they can cause an editor to pull punches, or to go out after particular targets for exposure, especially if those targets are ones the audience looks upon with contempt or disbelief. The coverage will confirm the audience’s biases. But Posner says this isn’t as simple as individual journalists pursuing their own biases. Much more is at stake. Revenue and audience demand, which are not controlled by the journalist, influence the direction of many media operations.

I disagree with Posner’s sweeping claim that mainstream media don’t take on certain entrenched institutions such as religious organizations. I worked at Church World Service in the 1980s when CBS’s Sixty Minutes did an incredibly biased and unfair story on the National Council of Churches. Working at CWS, I knew the story was a fabrication of a biased producer and it got past executive producer Don Hewitt and others at CBS and caused considerable harm to the National Council.

There was a concerted effort even back then to undermine this religious institution by a committed group of right-wing political writers, well-funded by right-wing foundations and enjoying the support of the editors of the Reader’s Digest, among others. Hewitt said later on the Larry King show that this is one story he regretted in his long career because he got telephone calls the morning after from what he called “redneck bishops” congratulating Sixty Minutes on the story.

I don’t have a clue about the existence of a redneck bishop and I find the use of the term “redneck” offensive. But I do know that this story marked my change of attitude toward the mainstream media. I stopped watching Sixty Minutes as a Sunday ritual and started looking very skeptically at mainstream television news.

If Sixty Minutes could be used as a propaganda tool to smear a responsible institution, then I decided I had to look with skepticism at all major media. Still do, in fact.

Posner raises concerns about integrity and credibility along with his analysis of economics and emerging new media. It makes for interesting reading.

Join the conversation!

Post a reply in the form below.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image