THE conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds. In a recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 65 percent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if they discover they've made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up, and 79 percent opined that a media company would hesitate to carry negative stories about a corporation from which it received substantial advertising revenues.
Another Sunday Times, another page one review that has little to do with the actual books involved. (The count here is eight, none of which slow Judge Posner down for as much as a paragraph of his almost 4700 words, though he thoughtfully takes the time to dismiss Eric Alterman and Bill Moyers as hyperbolic.)
Let's begin with two observations. One, there is such a cacophony surrounding the subject that no one is going to persuasively argue anything from a "liberals say this, conservatives say that" perspective. This is why, say, actually reviewing the books in question rather than choosing the occasional blipquote to fit the frame might have improved the piece. We already know what Mr. Liberal and Mr. Conservative are said to think. Second, there's a very clear history of the argument leading right into the Nixon White House. It's a curious omission in a piece that runs to 110 column inches. For some reason "conservatives" don't seem to enjoy being reminded they been making essentially the same claims of bias since the days of rabbit ears.
And "public intellectuals" need do no more than recycle conventional wisdom to rate that sort of space. We barely reach the point where "liberal" and "conservative" views converge before we get this:
Liberals, including most journalists (because most journalists are liberals), believe that the decline of the formerly dominant ''mainstream'' media has caused a deterioration in quality. They attribute this decline to the rise of irresponsible journalism on the right, typified by the Fox News Channel (the most-watched cable television news channel), Rush Limbaugh's radio talk show and right-wing blogs by Matt Drudge and others. But they do not spare the mainstream media, which, they contend, provide in the name of balance an echo chamber for the right. To these critics, the deterioration of journalism is exemplified by the attack of the ''Swift boat'' Vietnam veterans on Senator John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign. The critics describe the attack as consisting of lies propagated by the new right-wing media and reported as news by mainstream media made supine by anxiety over their declining fortunes.
That's it? I know a lot of liberals who agree that Rush, Drudge, et.al., have contributed to the decline of mass-market journalism (I know a few conservatives who think so, too) but hardly any who trace its decline to their appearance. Most thoughtful people I know find the roots of that decline in the Nixon (there's that name again) administration's aggressive anti-media campaigns and Big Media's subsequent retreat. "Happy talk" news and the trivializing, fact-obscuring exercise of faux balance are creations of the 70s, your Honor. A public intellectual such as yourself ought to know that. And if I find the need of an exemplar for the deterioration of journalism it is Clinton Scandals, Inc. and the coverage of the 2000 Presidential election. What happened to John Kerry--which was the propagation of lies, however "critics" choose to describe it--was just more of the same.
But this seems to be what you get when "Conservatives", including their credentialed Big Thinkers play the objective observer. History begins when they say it does. They've been talking to themselves for so long that asking them to characterize the "liberal" argument is like asking James Dobson to give you a brief overview of Islam.
Of course, we're now within shouting distance of the sine qua non of media bias claims, which we've already slipped in while you were sleeping:
Fourteen percent of Americans describe themselves as liberals, and 26 percent as conservatives. The corresponding figures for journalists are 56 percent and 18 percent. This means that of all journalists who consider themselves either liberal or conservative, 76 percent consider themselves liberal, compared with only 35 percent of the public that has a stated political position.
The amazing thing here is not that this nonsense is trotted out; if he'd been honest Ronald Reagan would have listed it as the Republican 11th Commandment in 1980. It's not that a highly respected Republican jurist posing as a thoughtful essayist selectively quotes some poll without regard for its accuracy or its context. It's not even that deceitful little "if you artificially make the sample smaller it sounds even worse" coda. I'm not even going to mention that in the event some vengeful God turned me into a "conservative" journalist I'd tell any pollster who asked I was liberal just to keep the ball in play. It's that this continues to be offered as evidence that the news itself is biased. This is sloppy beyond belief when it comes from the knuckle-draggers on the Right. But from a "public intellectual"? And a legal scholar, at that, someone who has to understand the distinction between grounds for suspicion of bias and the actual finding of fact. But Posner's just getting warmed up. After the required mention of Rathergate and the Newsweek Koran flushing stories (with no pause to reflect that each case consisted of improperly sourced material while the charges of bias concern the stories themselves, which were both newsworthy and factually correct), we get this:
The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left.
I'm not sure that "Conservatives" are even able to note when they step Through the Looking Glass anymore; we've got a sixty-year-old rug with less of a wear pattern. But I'd sure like to hear what the evidence looks like over there, at least occasionally. Who's the ragin'est liberal of that CNN bunch in Fantasyland? Daryn Kagan? Bill Schneider? Is Lou Dobbs a socialist? Does Candy Crowley fellate Democrats for a change? I think we have a real problem when saying "Up is Down" no longer carries any sense of exaggeration.
But this just passes as if it were too common to require discussion, because Posner wants to shoehorn the entire media bias debate into his University of Chicago Ayn Rand School of Economic Mumbo-Jumbo worldview. Because, you see, it's now okay that journalists are, by unanimous consent, somewhat to the left of Noam Chomsky, because modern technological advancements like cable and, god help us, blogs, have all but eradicated old-fashioned concepts like fairness, accuracy, and public ownership of the airwaves. So help me, the last third of this tiresome exercise is given over to recycled platitudes about blogging disguised as revelation. One and a half pages of stuff like:
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.
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.
Really, now, couldn't the Times find the Judge some science fiction to review? And one great thing about electronic media: I was able to print out three copies of that last quote and tape one up in each bathroom. Because the damn bureaucrats took Syrup of Ipecac off the market last year.