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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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August 21, 2005

The Posner Theory

Federal appeals judge Richard Posner has a smart and cynical critique of the news media in the New York Times. After referring to a number of books on the media, both from the left and the right, Posner offers a synthesis using the following method:

Strip these critiques of their indignation, treat them as descriptions rather than as denunciations, and one sees that they are consistent with one another and basically correct.

In other words, each side in the political debate, each growling dog, has a piece of the truth in its teeth. Yes, the news media is mainly operated by liberals. Certainly that is true; there is no doubt of it. Journalism also tends, for operational reasons, to suck up to sources, and government being Source No. 1, we tend to suck up to government. When we have a Republican government that declares that Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction and is a threat to the United States, the news media will report that, and if it comes after an event like the 9-11 attacks, it will report that uncritically. Later it will get even; but when critical thinking is needed most, the media’s bravery will not be up to the mark.

(There are some other things that Posner leaves out. Much of the media is lazy, most of it is sharply limited in how much money it can spend and all of it is in a hurry. All of these degrade the product.)

Posner, who is famous for combining economics with law, has an economic theory of media bias—that is, that we give the people the bias they want. He says:

The increase in competition in the news market that has been brought about by lower costs of communication has resulted in more variety, more polarization, more sensationalism, more healthy skepticism and, in sum, a better matching of supply to demand. But increased competition has not produced a public more oriented toward public issues, more motivated and competent to engage in genuine self-government, because these are not the goods that most people are seeking from the news media. They are seeking entertainment, confirmation, reinforcement, emotional satisfaction; and what consumers want, a competitive market supplies, no more, no less.

Posner’s cynical comments about the public were denounced in the NYT’s letter’s page, including a letter from the NYT’s executive editor. It is an old rhetorical tactic—‘You hate the public, you bad person’—but Posner has a big piece of truth between his teeth there, too.

One question regarding Posner’s economic theory of media bias: Why, if my industry is so intensely capitalistic, so economically motivated, does it hire three liberals for every one conservative? (So say the statistics Posner quotes; I would have guessed five or six to one.) There is an answer to that, too: the bias is inherent in the hiring pool. By and large, conservative college students don’t major in journalism. The composition of the hiring pool is not under control of the media, the government, the academy or any institution, and probably is not going to change.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at August 21, 2005 10:16 AM



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