Monday, July 25, 2005

Posner v. the people

Yesterday's New York Times Review of Books included a rather long article on the media by Richard Posner. I won't go too far into the fact that, for a supposedly great legal mind, he seems quite simple-minded in offering, say, the uber-partisan Brent Bozell as a counterpoint to the inarguably more scholarly Eric Alterman. Fox News is, Posner suggests, no more partisan than CNN. Nor is The Wall Street Journal, with its all-conservative stable of columnists, any different than The New York Times -- this despite the fact that Posner, a well-known if sometimes open-minded conservative, is arguing that the Times is conservative inside the pages of the Times itself.

Posner believes that polarization of the media is driven almost solely by economics. Conservatives and liberals want to see their viewpoints reinforced, he argues (as do many others) and, therefore, slanted media outlets are simply filling a market niche. "(P)eople don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs," Posner writes. If we accept this is the case, then what must we say of America? Are we truly a nation of citizens so trapped in the grips of cognitive dissonance that we no longer care whether our opinions stand up to reality? I believe this is as cynical a view of the United States as I've heard in a long time and, as I'll show, ultimately false.

Remember, Posner is a man beloved by the likes of the Power Line crowd, who praise him for belonging to a legal school of thought known as "law and economics." This theory basically attaches economic decision-making to legal decision-making. (Obviously this is done because economists, unlike lawyers agree so much more often than lawyers.) Dahlia Lithwick calls it, in her typically acerbic way, "a school of thought that derives legal principles from economic analysis, typically pointing at some established legal doctrine and declaring it nonsense." If there were ever a judge around whose neck could be hung the title of "judicial activist," it would probably be the likes of Posner.

The idea that the study of economics is one of reason and, because Posner and his like are on a level of thought above ours they can suss that reason out where we cannot, is also as pure and example of judicial elitism as I can imagine. That elitist attitude carries over into Posner's article. Consider:
Thus the increase in competition in the news market that has been brought about by lower costs of communication (in the broadest sense) 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. Journalists express dismay that bottom-line pressures are reducing the quality of news coverage. What this actually means is that when competition is intense, providers of a service are forced to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want, or more bluntly, what they want.

Yet what of the sliver of the public that does have a serious interest in policy issues? Are these people less well served than in the old days? Another recent survey by the Pew Research Center finds that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, including that bane of the right, National Public Radio, are attracting ever larger audiences. And for that sliver of a sliver that invites challenges to its biases by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that watches CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between, the increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before.
Posner, in my view, is doing nothing more here than giving the "bread and circuses" argument. The people are stupid and just want to be entertained. The intellectual "sliver" can still figure out where to get their news and information.

Yet here's a question: If a network such as Fox News is simply giving conservative viewers what they want to hear? Why the fig leaf of "balance"? Is it just too obvious?

The real question is this: If Fox News -- which, as they tells us all the time is the "most-watched cable news channel" -- is simply feeding the prejudice of Republican viewers, then why are Bush's poll numbers so dismal? If the American public is as intellectually disinterested as Posner would have us believe, one would think that Bush's numbers would be high and/or split across party lines. As Ann Coulter wrote recently, conservatives "have a fully functioning alternative media." It's not functioning all that well, Ann.

Posner truly believes that Americans are simply stupid, but, even before the recent CIA leak scandal, Bush's poll numbers were dismal. Posner writes that a "survey by the National Opinion Research Center finds that the public's confidence in the press declined from about 85 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 2002, with most of the decline occurring since 1991." Bush, on the other hand is well below 50%. If A) the "MSM" were so unpopular and; B) Fox News is the most-watched cable news channel (and has a noticeable Bush bias), then one would expect to see his numbers much higher than they are if things were as simple as Posner would have us believe.

Someone recently told me that I was "too partisan" to be trusted when I argued politics. It's simply not true. Yes, I'm a Democrat and I believe in the party, but, were I simply a partisan, I would be cheering right now for the idiots who are destroying the Republican Party. I sat with three retired Guardsmen the other day -- two sergeants major and a lieutenant colonel -- and heard the same thing from all three men. They were all Republicans. They all said that they wished Kerry had run a better campaign. They all wanted Bush gone. Americans are too smart to buy the Bushies' line of B.S. forever. Most Americans in the end, I believe, agree with Edwin Way Teale, the down-home naturalist who wrote, "It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have it."

Posner, while he might be quite the patriot, certainly doesn't seem to think to highly of his fellow Americans. They renew my faith in them every day.


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