The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

The real liberal media illusion

As documented by Campaign Desk amongst others, the performance of the media in covering the presidential campaign was less than stellar. (Dan Froomkin rounds up commentary with loadsa links).

The idea has thus developed (discussed by Rosen, for instance) that, in lieu of an illusory objectivity in political reporting, what is needed is a liberal equivalent of Fox - perhaps CNN voluntarily assuming the role that the VRWC has already allotted to it.

As I've suggested before, media stenography is primarily a matter not of morality or professionalism but of business: as I see it, the New York Times did not peddle USG's line on Iraqi WMD because of lack of moral fibre or incompetence but because its management judged that a confrontation with USG on its prime policy would harm long-term shareholder value.

The question is, therefore, is there a business case for a media outlet to swing liberal?

The form of the challenge to be posed would be critical: talk is cheap, research is expensive. The sort of interminable repetition one finds on Air America, for instance, may be sound from a propaganda viewpoint, soon gets tedious for the regular listener - but, undoubtedly, allows the budget to go further. A succession of guys plugging their new books is also cheap filler - and, if well interviewed [1], can to some extent fill the gap left by the absence of (prohibitively expensive) in-house investigative journalism.

But my feeling is that, for most Big Media outlets, the business case for veering to the left does not exist [2]: with, say, a liberal organ like the LA Times, one would expect that not only have the journos internalised objectivity so as to be traumatised by a decision explicitly to embrace their sinister side, but many (too many) of the rag's readers would also find such a move taboo-breaking.

Traditionally, such financial impediments have been overcome by an ideologically driven (or egomaniacal) proprietor willing and able to cover losses from his own resources. Today, most outlets are own by public companies; and the perils of bosses acting as if they owned the place have recently been amply demonstrated in the Conrad Black/Hollinger saga. (Rupert Murdoch is one of the last of a dying breed.)

But why go ideological? Objectivity is a bust; but resorting to partisan pimping is not the only possible reaction.

Froomkin links an Edward Wasserman piece on campaign coverage complaining about, inter alia, the squeezing out of policy coverage by horse-race stuff.

Horse-race is journo-friendly (glorified gossip) and cheap; policy is difficult, time-consuming, unglamorous and expensive. No-brainer.

Plus - policy also requires the commitment of time and concentration on the part of the reader or viewer [3]: horse-race is junk food that can be shovelled unthinkingly down the gullet. I'm sure content is focus-grouped by the networks and the big papers, and these are pretty much the results.

To devil's-advocate the point: There is plenty of wonkery about: why give our readers something costly that they don't want?

  1. Which they almost never are on AAR.

  2. Clearly, one can find structures in which left-wing agitprop can be economically viable: Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is the obvious example. There is investigative journalism being done on the left by the likes of Greg Palast, who evidently turns a penny or two thereby. Big Media may just not offer such a structure.

  3. There's no point in looking at a story about which you won't have sufficient materials to draw a conclusion.

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