In case you missed this week’s top story, I half-agreed with something a New York Times editor wrote in a "Letter to the Editor" of his own paper. If nothing else, at least Bill Keller now knows how it feels to have to write an angry letter to the editors of the New York Times.
I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but now that Keller has opened the door, Judge Posner did write a ridiculous review.
Reviewing a spate of books about the media last month, federal Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner argued that all the complaints about the media from the right and left simply reflected how market forces are changing the news business. He says the mainstream media are "more liberal than they used to be" and attributes that to "the rise of new media … pushing the already liberal media farther left."
His premise is obviously true–no industry can remain immune from the laws of supply and demand as long as there is competition. After a century of running an oligopoly, media chieftains are now facing competition for the first time–from the Internet, radio and cable TV. The Internet alone ensures that the supply will not abate.
But the result Posner sees doesn’t correspond with either the laws of capitalism or my TV screen.
The old media aren’t moving left: They already were left. If anything, they are moving to the right. (This can be hard to detect inasmuch as Pravda was their starting point.) When they resist, they lose customers.
That was precisely Keller’s complaint with Posner. He objected to the idea that the august New York Times is subject to the laws of capitalism, blathering about reporters’ "idealism" and their commitment to the craft of journalism, blah, blah, blah. Of course, if I were losing readers as fast as the New York Times, I might want to believe I was immune to the laws of the market, too.
Posner’s description of the media, then and now, leaves the impression that he does not himself consume the news. Contrary to evidence, he says: "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 that’s what I call a business model: American news consumers are moving to the right. Quick, let’s move to the left.
It doesn’t make economic sense that CNN would respond to the runaway success of Fox News by moving to the left, as Posner claims. In every other industry, competitors follow trends; they don’t run from them. When a reduced-calorie snack food is introduced and becomes a hit, that doesn’t "push" the other snack food companies to roll out their own "extra-calorie!" versions.
I enjoy making fun of CNN as much as the next guy, but CNN is not that liberal. It may be liberal compared to an average American, but it’s certainly not liberal compared to CNN pre-Fox News. Consider that Peter Arnett used to be treated as a serious journalist on CNN. Even his work on the "Tailwind" hoax program did not jeopardize his standing.
Now, even MSNBC won’t hire him. (Although I hear Arnett has a big interview at al-Jazeera next week–good luck, Peter!) After initially trying to stand by him, NBC was forced to fire Arnett after Americans erupted in fury at his traitorous comments on Saddam’s state-run TV at the outset of the Iraq war. This is what liberals mean when they say the country has become "polarized." Now when they try to put traitors on air, Americans complain.
Indeed, the only network still assiduously following Posner’s "give the consumers what they don’t want" business model is MSNBC. They will go to dead air before giving a conservative his own TV show (except poor, lonely Joe Scarborough, who has a terrific show–if only anyone knew how to find MSNBC on the dial!).
Turning on TV and seeing Wolf Blitzer instead of Peter Arnett is not evidence of the media’s becoming more polarized. It’s evidence of the media’s becoming more sane.
Instead of recycling tidbits he picked up from books written by people who subscribe to the bizarre notion that the media have a conservative bias, Posner should occasionally consume some media himself. It’s a wondrous example of the virtue of competition. The country isn’t more divided. All that has happened is that, now, conservatives are talking, too.