My review of William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson is in the 15 August 2005 issue ofThe New Republic. (I think you have to be a subscriber to read it online.)
In “Bad News,” Richard A. Posner suggests that economic forces are to blame for the current difficulties of American journalism—its political polarization, its attention to celebrity gossip, and its sensationalism. His analysis is provocative and wide-ranging, and where most analysts see trees, he sees groves. But I think he has nonetheless missed the forest.
Posner submits to the laws of supply and demand a few hypotheses about the fundamentals of the news market. “When competition is intense,” he writes, “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.” That sentence is hard to argue with. Some may argue with Posner’s rather dismal-scientific view of what the consumer wants: entertainment, ideological reassurance, and information about the world—roughly in that order. The bien-pensant elite may wish that the consumer wanted pure information, but she doesn’t, Posner insists. Posner made more or less the same pronouncement, a few years ago, about what people really want from public intellectuals. Some may argue with Posner on this. I don’t. Seen through Posner’s lens, idealism is merely one force among many, and the market, for better or worse, does not grant it any special privileges. It’s an interesting lens to look through.
Mere idealism won’t save journalism, in Posner’s optic. As a corollary, a lack of idealism hasn’t degraded it. Other forces have. What are they? How does Posner think the news market works? Here his generalizations need more scrutiny.
The crucial one is this: (1) When there are a small number of titles or channels in a news market, those titles and channels have an incentive to moderate their ideological slant. No news provider wants to alienate the middle-of-the-road news consumer, if he doesn’t have to. And if competitors are few, the slightly liberal newspaper doesn’t need to worry about a more liberal competitor, and the slightly conservative TV station doesn’t need to worry about a more conservative one. But (1A) when the number of titles and channels increases, the politics of newspapers and television stations polarizes, because they have to defend against challenges from the extremes.
Posner suggests a counterforce:
If economies of scale increase, and as a result the number [sc. the circulation] of newspapers grows, the opposite ideological change will be observed, as happened in the 19th century. The introduction of the ‘penny press’ in the 1830s enabled newspapers to obtain large circulations and thus finance themselves by selling advertising; no longer did they have to depend on political patronage.
This implies a second generalization: (2) When circulation numbers grow absolutely, news providers become less polarized and more professional. Posner doesn’t quite spell out why he thinks this. Maybe it’s because a highly polarized news product is not likely to appeal to a broad audience; maybe it’s because high circulation makes advertising income more important than subscriptions, and advertisers have a moderating influence on content, because they don’t want to lose customers by associating their brand with marginal or extreme political opinions. Presumably, this dynamic too may run in the opposite direction, and (2A) if circulation shrinks, news providers will become more polarized and less professional in a desperate search for readers and viewers.
These are fascinating hypotheses, but Posner gives no evidence to support them. I’m not sure, for instance, that the example of the 1830s demonstrates any of them. The number of newspaper titles exploded in the 1830s, and in that climate, biased and untrustworthy editors like James Watson Webb and his oedipal protege James Gordon Bennett pioneered the practice of modern reporting—of sending people out into the world to bring back facts to print. I suspect that people read Webb’s and Bennett’s papers as much for the facts as the bias. In other words, as the number of titles increased in the New York market, newspapers competed in satisfying the reader’s wishes for entertainment, solidarity, and enlightenment. Newspapers that set out to provide information with little to no bias—the strategy of Horace Greeley’s Tribune and more self-consciously, of Henry J. Raymond’s Times—came later. I simply don’t know enough to assess Posner’s generalizations statistically (by counting the number of newspapers in New York, rating their bias or lack of it, and finding their circulation numbers), but the flood of newsprint in the late nineteenth century, and the absurdly low professional standards of most of it, raise doubts in my mind about Posner’s second generalization. It isn’t clear to me, in other words, that a newspaper like the New York Times is necessarily associated with large circulations and few competitors.
Even less plausible is Posner’s emphasis on blogs. Posner treats them as rivals to newspapers and television stations, and takes their entry into the marketplace to be a shift in the market dynamic of massive proportions. According to his reasoning, the cost of starting a blog is negligible, so the number of titles has swollen, thus driving news providers to track their consumers’ true wishes more closely (per hypothesis 1A). Since the typical blog caters to a tiny niche of readers, they’ve chopped readership up into smaller and smaller chunks, further polarizing and depressing journalistic standards (per hypothesis 2A).
Here, too, I have serious doubts. There’s occasional grumbling, in the world linked to by Romenesko, that bloggers are ruining journalists’ lives, and as Posner points out, bloggers certainly make journalists lives more difficult, by talking back and by exposing and publicizing errors. But I’m not persuaded that they’re cutting into newspapers’ market share. Posner offers no evidence to support the idea. On the contrary, in his third paragraph, he quotes a statistic that more or less disproves it: “Daily readership [of newspapers] dropped from 52.6 percent of adults in 1990 to 37.5 percent in 2000.” That’s a staggering decline, but most of the blogs you read today did not exist in 2000. I tracked the Bush-Kerry race on blogs obsessively, but if there were any blogs around that might have leaked election-day polling results for Bush-Gore, I for one was not pressing the refresh button to read them. I’m writing this post in software whose spell checker is copyright 1999, and it insists on underlining “blog” with a curly red line, as misspelled. In other words, the decline of newspapers was well underway before blogs were any part of the cultural landscape.
To put the case another way: Do you think that The New Republic dents the circulation of the Washington Post? Though they are updated daily, blogs resemble TNR much more closely than they do WaPo. I suspect that almost all blog readers are already heavy print news consumers. Imagine the experiment of reading either Talking Points Memo or andrewsullivan.com exclusively for a few days while abstaining from newspapers—and no fair clicking through to the newspaper articles they link to. I think most people who tried it would quickly sink into stupor. Without the context provided by a stable news feed, you wouldn’t be able to follow the conversation. Sure, there may be a proportion of blog readers who reach news sites primarily by referral from blogs. But that is not an encroachment on newspapers’ market share. That’s a change in the way the product is delivered.
Celebrities, sensationalism, and political bias do not by themselves constitute a crisis in American journalism. They have been with us since 1833. Something is wrong, I agree, but I don’t think Posner has diagnosed it. Blogging is a harmless sideshow, a minority taste of the hyperliterate elite. The larger story—the forest that Posner did not see, while he was going after an innocent stand of poplars—is the decline in the habit of reading, including the reading of newspapers. The mistake in Posner’s analysis was made at the outset, when he failed to distinguish between newspaper titles and television channels. He writes as if a single dynamic governed the behavior of both media, when, I suspect, the most interesting analyses would tackle the differences in the media and their competition with each other. Except for a small group—most of whom probably read blogs—Americans read less and less often, at lower and lower levels of sophistication. Blogs preserve in a hypertrophied state the virtues of print journalism that are lost in the transition to streaming media. People don’t want to read about the decline in literacy, and by fingering blogs as the cause of print journalism’s difficulties, Posner has deftly avoided it. As Posner notes, “Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media.”
Since it hasn’t figured in the New York Times, I almost missed it, but the Italian courts have issued arrest warrants for another six C.I.A. agents. In June the Italians prosecuted thirteen American agents for kidnapping from Milan an Al Qaeda sympathizer named Hassan Osama Nasr, or Abu Omar, and “rendering” him to Egypt, where he seems to have been tortured. The judge at the time distinguished the thirteen agents who did the kidnapping from six others who had merely kept Abu Omar under surveillance and worked out some of the logistics. An appeals court now says that all nineteen should be arrested, because they worked together closely. In fact, according to the Italian prosecutors, “A female agent from the group of six shared a room at the five-star Westin Hotel in Milan with a male agent from the group of 13.” It still seems unlikely to me that the case will amount to more than a gesture, but I appreciate the details unearthed.
Very little of what was first reported of the July 22 shooting by London police of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian, seems to be true. In early reports, he was said to have been wearing a bulky jacket and to have jumped the subway turnstile as he fled the police. The Guardian reports that at a news conference yesterday, de Menezes’s relatives said that London’s Metropolitan police have now admitted that he was wearing only a “jeans jacket” and that he did not jump the ticket barrier but “used a travel card” to enter the subway. The Scotsman notes that “There is a widespread belief he [de Menezes] was confused because the police were not in uniform,” but I can’t find any solid reports about this one way or the other. When the shooting was first reported in America, most accounts justified the suspect nature of the Brazilian’s jacket by noting that London temperatures on July 22 “were in the 70s”. But according to at least one weather site, the temperature in London that day never rose above 69 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).
Over the weekend we went to a backyard fundraiser for the Genocide Intervention Fund, an effort launched by a few Swarthmore undergraduates to support African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, in the hope that they will at least slow the ongoing genocide. A young woman spoke who had lived through the Rwandan genocide as a child and had just come from visiting with Darfur refugees in a camp in Chad. Please consider donating.
It was an artsy crowd, and a man whose name I didn’t catch was passing around a handheld viewer with a fascinating sample of 3-D slides he had taken—a giraffe with a crick in its neck; an antipapist rally with a bonfire, a scaffold, and audience members in Viking helmets; and electric sparks snaking out of a Tesla coil like some kind of Frankenstein’s-monster octopus. He said he was going to be projecting the slides on August 18 at the next meeting, free and open to the public, of the New York Stereoscopic Society at the American Museum of Natural History.
There are 3-D images from the 1850s at the ICP’s Young America exhibit at Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street. You may recall that a few weeks ago I began an unofficial audio guide for the exhibit. The bad news is that I decided, about a third of the way through reading P. C. Headley’s Life of Louis Kossuth in order to pontificate about him, that this was not a cost-effective use of my time (and might even, from the perspective of book-writing, be considered an elaborate form of procrastination). The good news is that the exhibit is in New York for another month, and there is still time for you to see it unencumbered by my mellifluous tones.
As part of a new resolve to be more consistently nineteenth-century, I would like to report a bit of news about Charles F. Briggs’s The Trippings of Tom Pepper, the novel from which the title of this blog is taken. While reading works by and about William Dean Howells, for reasons I am not yet ready to disclose, I recently learned that after Howells and his brother read Trippings, they swore to each other that they would never lie—an early sign of Howells’s hyperactive superego, in my opinion, because Tom Pepper’s guilt about lying struck me (in the one volume of the novel I’ve read) as more of a running gag than an earnest plot point.