Ed Driscoll

Posner On The Blogosphere And Big Media

In his Insta-linked essay in the New York Times, Judge Richard Posner touches upon a number of points that we’ve addressed here in the past:

The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left. CNN was going to lose many of its conservative viewers to Fox anyway, so it made sense to increase its appeal to its remaining viewers by catering more assiduously to their political preferences.

Yup. As I wrote last year:

As William McGowan noted in Coloring The News, by drinking the PC Kool-Aid in the late 1980s, the press pretty much assured that this would be their tone. In their fear to not offend anybody–save for, as “Pinch” Sulzberger was quoted as saying, “white, heterosexual males”–they’ve also completely lost their moral compass.

What’s interesting though, as a commenter on Charles Johnson’s site noted, is that since this tactic has alienated much of the American public (based on the latest Pew Report), their primary readers are increasingly, exclusively the left. And they either had to have seen this coming, or be clueless as to the unintended consequences of the direction that they set out in. So as not to alienate their remaining readers, it becomes increasingly more important to keep them in the liberal cocoon. And the cocoon narrows that much more–on both the readers and the press. But hey, stay quiet, and you’ll be OK!

For somebody the left considers a dummy, this guy is sure on to something.

More Posner:

So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives – hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ”a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.”

Exactly. As Posner notes earlier in his essay, that’s exactly what our newspapers were like prior to the rise of the big three TV networks and the newspaper consolidations of the post-War World II era. The Internet has allowed a return to that past form, as James Pinkerton once noted.

Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave is full of examples of past forms being reborn via high tech. In the past, disseminating information required owning, or having access to a printing press (and a means of distribution), or a radio or TV station, none of which were cheap to acquire. These days, anybody can go to Blogger.com and start a blog–and according to Technorati, 14 million people have, returning us to the era of one-man pamphleteers, but with a twist: hyperlinked together, it’s possible to check sources, find new writers whose viewpoints might match your own, and network with others in an astonishingly easier fashion.

Back to Posner:

A serious newspaper, like The Times, is a large, hierarchical commercial enterprise that interposes layers of review, revision and correction between the reporter and the published report and that to finance its large staff depends on advertising revenues and hence on the good will of advertisers and (because advertising revenues depend to a great extent on circulation) readers. These dependences constrain a newspaper in a variety of ways. But in addition, with its reputation heavily invested in accuracy, so that every serious error is a potential scandal, a newspaper not only has to delay publication of many stories to permit adequate checking but also has to institute rules for avoiding error – like requiring more than a single source for a story or limiting its reporters’ reliance on anonymous sources – that cost it many scoops.

But it’s possible to recover from errors–indeed, the history of the Times in the 20th century is bookended by the fabrications of Walter Duranty in the 1930s, and the fabrications of Jayson Blair, beginning shortly after his employment in the late 1990s. Somehow, it has maintained a large subscriber base, even with those obvious and well-known lies. Not to equate Matt Drudge’s errors with the willful and frightening lies of Duranty, but he too has maintained a huge readership, despite some of of his rush-to-upload scoops not checking out. Posner touches on this in a couple of paragraphs later:

What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. 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.

This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public. This is true not only of newspaper retractions – usually printed inconspicuously and in any event rarely read, because readers have forgotten the article being corrected – but also of network television news. It took CBS so long to acknowledge Dan Rather’s mistake because there are so many people involved in the production and supervision of a program like ”60 Minutes II” who have to be consulted.

The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media; only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants.

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.

Well, no–not millions. In his Blog book, published late last year, Hugh Hewitt wrote that there were 7,000,000 Weblogs that Technorati tracked, and about 50,000 of them were updated daily. Technorati’s latest numbers double that seven million figure; it’s safe to assume that those 50,000 blogs that update daily have doubled as well.

Big difference though: AP, Reuters and the New York Times are all built on the assumption that “sure, for decades, we’ve been near monopolies on information, but you can trust us because we’re large institutions”–and the second half of that statement has increasingly been proven a specious argument. In contrast, one-man blogs have to earn their reputations solely on their readers’ judgement–and will fairly quickly lose them, if their writers fumble too far off the mark. (Notice how quickly Andrew Sullivan’s stock, at least on the right-hand side of the Blogosphere, fell last year.)

Along similar lines, some have called for voluntary standards, or the equivalent of a Better Business Bureau-style of blog overseer. But even that isn’t as good a check on standards as the collective marketplace itself. As Alan Greenspan wrote 40 years ago:

“To paraphrase Gresham’s Law: bad “protection” drives out good. The attempt to protect the consumer by force undercuts the protection he gets from incentive. First, it undercuts the value of reputation by placing the reputable company on the same basis as the unknown, the newcomer, or the fly-by-nighter. It declares, in effect, that all are equally suspect