Posner on blogs and media
Monday, August 1st, 2005
In what is camoflaged as a review of eight books on corporate media, blogger, scholar and circuit court judge Richard Posner, in the cover story on NYTimes book review, offers a brilliant summary of the relationship between blogs, public information and corporate media. Though Posner overplays bloggers’ economic threat to corporate media — the real threat is the traditional advertisers’ mass evacuation from corporate media into cheaper and more efficient online modes like Google, Monster, CraigsList, eBay and Cars.com — he offers a fine summary of the fast-rusting logical foundation of conventional media:
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. …
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.
Not that the media lie about the news they report; in fact, they have strong incentives not to lie. Instead, there is selection, slanting, decisions as to how much or how little prominence to give a particular news item. Giving a liberal spin to equivocal economic data when conservatives are in power is, as the Harvard economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer point out, a matter of describing the glass as half empty when conservatives would describe it as half full.
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. They want to think they inform the public, rather than just satisfying a consumer demand no more elevated or consequential than the demand for cosmetic surgery in Brazil or bullfights in Spain. They believe in ”deliberative democracy” – democracy as the system in which the people determine policy through deliberation on the issues. In his preface to ”The Future of Media” (a collection of articles edited by Robert W. McChesney, Russell Newman and Ben Scott), Bill Moyers writes that ”democracy can’t exist without an informed public.” If this is true, the United States is not a democracy (which may be Moyers’s dyspeptic view). Only members of the intelligentsia, a tiny slice of the population, deliberate on public issues. …
Journalists minimize offense, preserve an aura of objectivity and cater to the popular taste for conflict and contests by – in the name of ”balance” – reporting both sides of an issue, even when there aren’t two sides. So ”intelligent design,” formerly called by the oxymoron ”creation science,” though it is religious dogma thinly disguised, gets almost equal billing with the theory of evolution. If journalists admitted that the economic imperatives of their industry overrode their political beliefs, they would weaken the right’s critique of liberal media bias.
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.
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. This is true not only of newspaper retractions – usually printed inconspicuously and in any event rarely read, because readers have forgotten the article being corrected – but also of network television news. It took CBS so long to acknowledge Dan Rather’s mistake because there are so many people involved in the production and supervision of a program like ”60 Minutes II” who have to be consulted.
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.
How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when the competition is not entirely fair. 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. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they 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.
Some critics worry that ”unfiltered” media like blogs exacerbate social tensions by handing a powerful electronic platform to extremists at no charge. Bad people find one another in cyberspace and so gain confidence in their crazy ideas. The conventional media filter out extreme views to avoid offending readers, viewers and advertisers; most bloggers have no such inhibition.
The argument for filtering is an argument for censorship. (That it is made by liberals is evidence that everyone secretly favors censorship of the opinions he fears.) But probably there is little harm and some good in unfiltered media. They enable unorthodox views to get a hearing. They get 12 million people to write rather than just stare passively at a screen. In an age of specialization and professionalism, they give amateurs a platform. They allow people to blow off steam who might otherwise adopt more dangerous forms of self-expression. They even enable the authorities to keep tabs on potential troublemakers; intelligence and law enforcement agencies devote substantial resources to monitoring blogs and Internet chat rooms.
And most people are sensible enough to distrust communications in an unfiltered medium. They know that anyone can create a blog at essentially zero cost, that most bloggers are uncredentialed amateurs, that bloggers don’t employ fact checkers and don’t have editors and that a blogger can hide behind a pseudonym. They know, in short, that until a blogger’s assertions are validated (as when the mainstream media acknowledge an error discovered by a blogger), there is no reason to repose confidence in what he says. The mainstream media, by contrast, assure their public that they make strenuous efforts to prevent errors from creeping into their articles and broadcasts. They ask the public to trust them, and that is why their serious errors are scandals.
A survey by the National Opinion Research Center finds that the public’s confidence in the press declined from about 85 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 2002, with most of the decline occurring since 1991. Over both the longer and the shorter period, there was little change in public confidence in other major institutions. So it seems there are special factors eroding trust in the news industry. One is that the blogs have exposed errors by the mainstream media that might otherwise have gone undiscovered or received less publicity. Another is that competition by the blogs, as well as by the other new media, has pushed the established media to get their stories out faster, which has placed pressure on them to cut corners. So while 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. …
The only other shred of a quibble I’d offer is with the idea that bloggers are “parasites” on corporate media.
First, press narcissism notwithstanding, bloggers would be blogging with or without corporate media. Yes, political bloggers spend hours debating fine points of ABC’s coverage versus that of FOX. But there are many blogospheres, many of them as remote from US corporate media as a pebble on Pluto; to name just two, music bloggers have little interest in corporate media’s work, and food bloggers have none.
Second, while the idea that bloggers are parasites on conventional media has some metaphorical value, the moral implication is that conventional press is morally superior, that bloggers are dirty and/or harmful to the body politic, that their consumption of media products is somehow unfair. But remember that corporate media is itself a parasite feeding on the public’s social, economic and political interactions. Journalists interview experts for hours and then extract a line or two of thought to process for their own financial and egotistical profit. Interviewees often feel abused and misconstrued.
At one level, the blogosphere is an electronic embodiment and amplification of our social interactions. Beyond this, the blogosheres gives individuals and the public the same privileges of publishing — making things “public” — that the press has enjoyed for 300 years. And now, to complete the spin of the mobius strip, the corporate media has become a parasite on the blogosphere, quoting and analysing and trading on its insights. (As NYT has done in publishing this article.)
Finally, the parasite meme can be misleading because it suggests a false sense of scale and complexity. While bloggers are individually far smaller and simpler than corporate publishers, the blogospheres are (or will soon be) far bigger and more complex. (Remember trading volumes in treasury bonds are now dwarfed by trading in their “derivate” futures and options.) The blogospheres, driven by myriad motives and individuals, are avalanching in directions and volumes never imagined by “simple” profit-driven corporations. (2002 thoughts on the parasite question.)