Polarizing the Press

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Polarizing the Press


"Bad News" by Richard A. Posner, in The New York Times Book Review (July 31, 2005), 229 West 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10036.

The once-dominant "mainstream" news media now get whacked from both political sides. Conservatives repeatedly rail against their liberal bias ("Dan Rather!"), while liberals deplore their descent into sensationalism and willingness to serve as an echo chamber for the irresponsible Right ("Swift Boat Veterans!"). Both critiques are "basically correct," argues Posner, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. The source of the problem (if it is a problem) is increased competition--and a public that doesn't want what journalists and other high-minded sorts like to think it wants.

"The mainstream media are predominantly liberal--in fact, more liberal than they used to be," says Posner. They are also "more sensational, more prone to scandal, and possibly less accurate."

Behind these trends, says Posner, 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." Americans today have 10 times as many TV channels available to them as they did 30 years ago, along with the myriad offerings of the Internet. The result, he says, is a declining audience for the mainstream media and increasing political polarization and sensationalism in news reporting.

Imagine a city with only two newspapers. Because the less committed citizens vastly outnumber the partisans, each competitor has a business incentive not to lean too far right or left. But if changed economic conditions reduce the size of the audience needed to make a profit, competitors will multiply. …

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