Monday, December 2, 2002

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How the U.S. Media is becoming more European

For all of the talk about the U.S. and Europe parting ways, there is one phenomenon in which the U.S. is moving closer to the European model -- the overt biases of media outlets. In Great Britain, for example, everyone knows that the Guardian is left-of-center, the Independent is centrist, the Times is to the right, and the Daily Telegraph is further to the right (don't ask me about the tabloids, they all just blurred together to me).

In the U.S., media outlets ritually stress their devotion to objectivity (fair and balanced, anyone?). However, outlets are beginning to drift to one side of the political fence or the other. There are lots of ideational reasons for this (I suspect that post-9/11, the reader demand for a consistent philosophy to put news coverage into a clear context has increased) but the most important might be that it increases profits.

Consider Seth Mnookin's Newsweek piece on the "crusading Southern populist" (i.e., liberal) bias in the New York Times. The piece is mostly about the Times' leftward shift under Howell Raines, but it contains another interesting nugget of information: "their game plan is working—at least at the newsstand. During a time when many papers are losing circulation, the Times, which has aggressively pursued a national readership, has seen increases over the past six months, with most of that uptick coming outside the New York metropolitan area."

Now, contrast this with the following information contained in the New York Times' favorable Sunday piece on Fox News: "Fox News reported that its prime-time viewership had grown 17 percent for the month, compared with November 2001, while CNN's prime-time ratings fell 31 percent, continuing a pattern of dominance by Fox in the cable news wars. In the 24-hour cycle, Fox has a solid lead over CNN, and has left MSNBC in the dust."

For all the talk about the Blogosphere fracturing into snug ideological cocoons, it's the mainstream media that could be headed in this direction. I'm on the fence about the implications. One clear downside is the tendency for ideological zeal to overwhelm a concern for accurately nailing down the hard facts of a story. All sides are guilty of this -- click here for the New York Times' headline fiasco and here for brouhahas involving the Washington Times.

Still, I suspect it won't be an entirely negative phenomenon, so long as a market still exists for an Independent-style of neutral publications. A chief virtue of an ideological press is that when a media outlet goes against its natural ideological biases, it carries great credibility. If Fox News were to argue in favor of stricter gun control laws, it would make people notice; ditto if the Times were to ever argue in favor of restricting abortions. [Why haven't you mentioned Paul Krugman's criticisms of media bias this past Friday?--ed. Because Krugman wasn't thinking like an economist in that piece, he was posting as a liberal. An economist would celebrate the 67% increase in market competiotion for television news, and point out the utility of ideological brands as a useful signal in a market defined by imperfect information. His concern is the growth of conservative media outlets. This tendency of Krugman will be the subject of what the Times would label a "sophisticated exegesis of a sociological phenomenon" -- and what I will simply call a lengthy post -- later this week).

Developing.... over the next couple of years.

UPDATE: Tapped weighs in on this phenomenon as well. Kevin Drum has some thoughts on this as well; check it out for his hysterically funny "solution" to the problem.

posted by Dan on 12.02.02 at 11:20 AM